I’m going to start this Phoenix Race Recap off the day before the actual race. On qualifying day Friday, AJ reached a milestone in his NASCAR career – his first pole win. The 28 year old open-wheel alum is no stranger to starting out front, having led the field to green every season in his professional open-wheel career except for his rookie ChampCar season in 2004. Yet this was the first time he had ever qualified P-1 since moving over to stock cars in 2007.
Getting a NASCAR pole is something that AJ can now cross off his to-do list. First top ten, first top five, pole position, race win, championship. These are goals that every race car driver strives to achieve. AJ now has three out of five, and the fourth isn’t too far off. More than just a driver milestone though, winning the pole gives the whole team a measure of pride that can’t be bought. Being #1 on qualifying day gives the pit crew, the guys back at the shop, as well as the driver a reason to puff out their chests. On that day, they were the best of the best and everyone knows it.
Not only that, but it gives the fans of that driver a huge boost, as any of my Twitter followers can attest. You would be hard put to find anyone outside of AJ’s immediate family who was more proud on Friday. AJ has never given me a reason not to hold my head high as a fan of his, but I won’t deny it was a huge thrill to see his name at the top of the board at the end of qualifying. The smile on his face and the faces of his family made me happier than you can imagine.
There isn’t a whole lot of emphasis or reward for winning the pole in NASCAR these days. Qualifying first doesn’t pay points, and the Budweiser Shootout in February is no longer made up of the prior year’s pole winners. So some may say that it is only a minor accomplishment and no big deal. However, it is still important on race day. Not only does the pole winner get first pick for pit selections, but they also get that all-important clean air. And when the race started late Saturday afternoon, AJ used that to his best advantage.
Getting a good lead on his former team car, the 82 Red Bull ride of Scott Speed, AJ put down the fastest laps of the race early and stayed out in front of the competition. He led the first 17 laps of the race until an early caution brought the field into the pits for tires. A few competitors stayed out and a couple more only took two tires, but AJ still restarted the race in the top 10 – and managed to stay there for the first 100 laps of the event.
Eventually a tight condition that caused the front tires to hop and slide across the race track, combined with a bad brake vibration going through the corner, dropped AJ out of the top 10 and clear back as far as 24th position. Some big adjustments and the setting of the sun seemed to turn the backwards slide around though, and by lap 200 AJ was back in the top 20 and gaining positions.
The 43 team worked hard on pit road, giving AJ good pit stops to help him out. Crew chief Mike Shiplett kept working on the car to get it better, and AJ did his thing on track to eventually climb clear to the 11th position as the laps wound down. It looked like the race would end under green with AJ falling just short of a top 10, but with only 3 laps to go the caution came out and set the competitors up for a green-white-checker finish.
I don’t envy the decision that crew chiefs have to make in this position, but I agreed with Mike Shiplett’s call to pit from 11th position and take just two tires. AJ would have been a sitting duck with no tires at all, and four tires would have put him in around 18th position for the restart. While he might have gained some ground from that spot, it would be unlikely to get back up into the top 10.
So instead, AJ lined up for the final restart in 5th position with some very good cars with four fresh tires behind him. Anyone watching could see what was coming, as I’m sure AJ could as well. When the green flag flew, Jimmie Johnson ducked under AJ and made it three wide on the narrow front stretch. AJ attempted to block, but Jimmie had his nose inside the #43 fender by that time. Trying to push Jimmie any lower would have just landed AJ nose first into the inside wall.
Unfortunately, being stuck in the middle of three wide going into turn 1 at Phoenix isn’t a good position to be in. And on older tires, AJ did his best not to get run over as he tried to fall into line. A hit from Brad Keselowski didn’t help, and AJ dropped numerous positions as the white flag flew. Then an overly aggressive hit from Marcos Ambrose nearly took out half the field and left AJ dropping back even further to a final finishing position of 15th.
It was an unfortunate ending after such a promising start, but it is still a good day when you can be disappointed with a top-15 finish. The 43 team was strong all weekend long at Phoenix , and will hopefully be able to carry some of that momentum on to Texas . Next weekend will be an interesting test of how the new spoiler reacts on the cars, but after AJ finished on top of the practice chart at the Charlotte test a couple weeks ago, I am hoping for big things at Texas . Who knows, maybe I’ll get to see how AJ looks in a cowboy hat & six shooters.