If it wasn’t for Denny Hamlin winning less than three weeks after having knee surgery, Mother Nature would have been the top headline for the Texas race weekend. The Sprint Cup competitors managed to get in a practice session and qualifying on Friday, but the remainder of the weekend was completely washed out.
When the cars lined up for the race on Monday morning the drivers hadn’t turned a lap for two days, and the last time the machines had been on the oval they were in qualifying trim. Add the lack of practice time in with the debut of the spoiler at a track larger than a mile, and a new tire combination, and I’m sure some teams were apprehensive over what they would have for the 500 mile race.
AJ qualified the #43 Insignia/Best Buy Ford Fusion in 17th place and quickly moved forward three spots when the green flag flew. A tight condition overall and an especially aero-tight feel back in traffic took its toll in that first stretch of green flag laps and he lost what he gained at the beginning of the run. Thankfully the scheduled competition caution at lap 25 let them come in and make some adjustments.
Pit road was a busy place with nearly all competitors on the lead lap, and AJ got into his pit box a little deep leaving him with very little room to pull out and slowing down his pit stop. He restarted the race around 21st position and was again fast on the start, but faced the same tight condition on the longer runs. AJ moved up through the field though and was in 15th place when former teammate Brian Vickers brought out the caution.
After a short run under green another caution flag came out around lap 100 and the team decided to gamble for some track position with a 2 tire stop. The gamble seemed to work as AJ restarted in 6th position and was able to maintain pace with the lead pack. Then another short run brought them to pit road again, this time for 4 tires.
AJ took the next green flag in 18th position and was moving through the field when some tight three-wide racing led him a little too close to the grass on the apron of the track. Even though it was only a small chunk, it clogged up one of the openings on the front of the car. Thankfully AJ was observant enough to notice the water temperature climbing, and with a long green flag stretch looking eminent, Mike Shiplett called him down pit road to clean the grill.
The unscheduled stop averted a blown engine, but it put AJ down a lap to the leaders in 29th place. Since Shiplett made the call to fill the car full of fuel while he was on pit road, AJ was out of sync with the leaders of the race. As green flag pit stops started to cycle through, the hope was for the caution to come just right in order for AJ to be back on the lead lap. Unfortunately, green flag stops came and went a couple of times with no luck falling AJ’s way.
Leaving AJ out as long as he could each run almost backfired for Shiplett and AJ even went two laps down at one point. The green Insignia car was fast though, and AJ passed the leader in order to get one of those laps back. Then just when it seemed like hope was lost and he would end up two laps down again, the caution finally came out. This time Mike Shiplett made a gutsy call to take the wave around and get back on the lead lap, even though it would put them short on fuel.
Running in the 20th position with older tires than all the other cars on the lead lap, AJ did a great job with his Ford Fusion and picked his way through traffic. Unfortunately AJ had to pit ahead of schedule after not coming in under caution. Thankfully the race stayed green and everything cycled out again. With 40 laps to go AJ was now running in 10th place, but was short a pit stop compared to the rest of the lead pack group.
Now at this point in the race I was being cautiously optimistic. I like to say that I am a pessimist in optimist’s clothing. I really hope that luck will fall AJ’s way, but deep inside I don’t think it’s going to happen. The entire 200 laps that he spent trying to make up for that unscheduled pit stop, I kept my fingers crossed for it to work out that way, but at the same time shielded myself from disappointment by not expecting it.
The one thing that seemed different this time around was that Mike Shiplett played the part of a cheerleader for the #43 group. While AJ was almost eerily silent on the radio, Mike kept assuring both driver and team that they WOULD get their lap back. That they had too good of a car for a twenty-something place finish.
What really convinced me that AJ had a chance for a decent finish though, was when a tire rub from contact with the #24 car sent Jimmie Johnson down pit road for an unscheduled stop. As the laps wound down, AJ and Jimmie were on the same pit cycle and needed a caution to fall because they both needed to pit again. And since we all know that Jimmie has a golden horseshoe hidden somewhere, at that point I knew AJ would be alright.
Sure enough, David Reutimann felt like the race wasn’t exciting enough and decided to put on a little fire and smoke show for the crowd, drawing that much needed yellow flag. That was the good news – the bad news was that AJ was pitted just 2 stalls from Reutimann and neither crew chief nor pit crew could see him coming down pit road due to the cloud from the fire extinguisher’s used. Spotter Tony stepped in though, and guided AJ effortlessly into his box for a four tire stop.
Now in 12th place with four tires and a fast race car, AJ looked like a lock for a top ten finish. As the race restarted it was obvious that he had a better car than those ahead of him, but their battling with each other left no room for AJ to get past. Then when drivers decided to take things three wide and Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Carl Edwards all made contact in front of him, AJ just had nowhere to go and was an innocent victim in the pileup that ensued.
While AJ initially thought that the damage was severe enough to end their day, that turned out not to be the case. AJ was headed into pit road early so the team could look at the damage when the red flag came out. Knowing from an incident with teammate Kasey Kahne in a prior race that passing the pace car under red flag would earn a 1 lap penalty, Shiplett made a heads-up call to have AJ stop right at the entrance to pit road until the yellow came back out.
Sending crew guys closer to survey the damage while the race was under red flag, the crew chief then assured AJ that the repairs could be done on pit road. Once the yellow came back out, the crew went to work fixing the right front fender and making sure there were no severe mechanical problems that would jeopardize AJ’s safety if a tire were to blow out.
Even though the steering wheel was cocked slightly, indicating a problem with the toe of the car, AJ lined up for the restart at the tail end of the field for pitting too early. With 15 lap-down cars between him and the rest of the lead lap group, and not really knowing how capable his wounded car was, AJ made a wise choice to just hang back and hope for another caution to get him on the back bumper of the guys he was racing for position. This time his luck didn’t hold out though, and for what seems like the first time in ages, the race didn’t have a green-white-checker finish.
AJ brought the #43 Insignia car home in 13th position, thanks in large part to both the driver and the team never giving up. If AJ had gotten down over what happened and not driven his hardest the entire time, he probably would have ended up two laps down and in a lot worse position. Mike Shiplett did a great job up on the pit box adjusting the car and keeping the team morale up. It was just a really strong overall effort by everyone on the #43 team, and even though the car was better than a 13th place car, it truly was a great finish.
Now hopefully they will take the good momentum from Texas, as well as some of the luck that helped them out, and roll into Talladega with a good head of steam. RPM has been putting out stellar restrictor plate cars, and adding Yates horsepower under the hood should be a huge plus. I expect the cars to qualify well, but more importantly, to draft well. Anything can happen at Dega – even a first win.