It was a roller coaster of a day at the Monster Mile for AJ Allmendinger and the #43 crew on Sunday. After a solid qualifying effort at the Dover track, AJ started off the Autism Speaks 400 in 8th position. He maintained a top 10 spot through the first run of green flag racing and then came in for four fresh tires under the first caution. The pit crew had a great stop and got AJ a couple of positions to restart the race in 6th spot.
When the race went green again, it was like watching Richard Petty himself rocket through the field in the classic Petty blue and STP red colors. AJ made quick work in getting into the top five, but wasn’t satisfied with just making laps. He quickly conquered 4th and 3rd positions and then he set his sights on leader Kyle Busch and 2nd place Jimmie Johnson, who had put some distance on the rest of the field.
The fastest car in the field for quite some time, AJ gradually reeled in the two front runners and came up on the back of them just as Jimmie Johnson got around Kyle Busch to take the lead. AJ also made quick work of the younger Busch brother and then went after the four time champion. It looked like he was going to get past JJ a couple of times as they worked through traffic, but AJ finally settled into 2nd place as the two of them put a five second gap on the 3rd place car.
When it came time for a green flag pit stop on lap 130, AJ brought the Richard Petty Tribute car in for four tires and fuel. Unfortunately, a dropped lug nut on the right rear cost the team some time as the tire changer had to come back around and put the lug nut on. Thankfully the mistake was under green instead of yellow, so while AJ lost his large time advantage on the field, he only dropped one spot to 3rd once everything cycled through.
The pit stop had more severe consequences than just the lost position though. NASCAR only requires that the lug nuts be fully on the stud, but not necessarily tightened all the way. So when AJ’s tire changer went back for the lug, he tried saving time by not taking his air gun. Instead, he simply hand tightened it to get past the requirement so that AJ could shoot out of his stall immediately.
It might have saved a little bit of time by not having to run the air gun back around the car, but in my opinion they should have taken the extra time to do it right. That loose lug nut quite possibly cost the team a top five finish as AJ reported in 30 laps later that he had a bad vibration. Knowing the problems on the stop and suspecting a loose wheel was the culprit, AJ made the decision to come down pit road rather than ending up in the wall.
Luck wasn’t on AJ’s side as the caution came out on lap 165 while AJ was still on pit road. The pace car picked up the field and AJ couldn’t quite beat them out of pit road, trapping him not just one, but two laps down. All wasn’t lost though, as the new wave around rule benefitted the #43 team. AJ got one of his laps back after the leaders pitted and started at the tail end of the field, now one lap down and hunting for the lucky dog spot.
With what was still a top five race car on the speed chart, AJ picked his way through all of the lap down cars and eventually had a rough and tumble brawl with Ryan Newman to take the lucky dog position. When the caution flag fell giving AJ his lap back, he restarted in the 17th position and went to work again, moving up through the field.
Making it all the way up to a top 10 spot, the caution again flew and AJ brought the Tribute car back to the attention of the crew. This time it was the driver who made the error in the pits. Pitted right at the end of pit road, crew chief Mike Shiplett urged AJ to race out of his stall, possibly thinking that there wasn’t enough distance before the time line for the car to break pit road speed. That wasn’t the case though, and AJ was forced to start at the end of the field for a speeding penalty.
Restarting in 17th position, AJ only made up a couple of spots as he battled an ill-handling car. An adjustment on a green flag pit stop helped a little bit, but the handling still wasn’t near where it had been at the first part of the race. While he had been the fastest car in the field in the early running, he was now only clicking off top 15 lap times. Which is pretty much where he finished, ending up with a 14th place effort when the checkers fell.
While there were certainly disappointments throughout the race, I can’t say that the day was all bad. In fact, I think there were more positives to be taken away from the race than negatives. Certainly the #43 team needs to work on some things to make themselves into a race winning team, but this weekend they managed to prove to everyone that they aren’t far off the mark.
Mistakes by the pit crew happen to even the best of teams. That’s just the consequence of trying to make every 1/10th of a second count. I’m sure they will review what went wrong and take measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The speeding penalty was also the result of knowing they had a car capable of winning and trying to take advantage of every opportunity. AJ rarely has issues with speeding, and since the one on Sunday was more a consequence of where their pit stall was, I don’t even consider that an issue that needs resolved.
Honestly, I think the biggest thing that hurt the #43 team’s efforts on Sunday was just consistency with the handling of the car. The way the track rubbered up threw all the crew chiefs a curveball, and made the cars a handful for the drivers. While AJ obviously had one of the fastest cars at the beginning of the race, they either couldn’t keep up with the changing conditions, or else the rest of the field made their cars that much better.
In any case, even without the speeding penalty or the loose wheel, I think AJ would have had a tough time keeping the Tribute car on pace with the top 5 cars at the end of the 400 miles. That consistency and making good changes is the biggest thing that they need to work on right now. They’ve proven that they can build race winning cars – now they need to learn how to tweak those cars during the race so they can close the deal.
The Sprint Cup level of competition is fierce. It is getting more and more difficult to win races, even with the absolute best equipment out there – look at Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton as examples. Not only do you have to have a super fast car, but a flawless pit crew, a machine for a driver, and apparently the perfect alignment of the stars in order to make the trip to Victory Lane, as luck certainly seems to be a factor.
While AJ and the #43 team have had their flashes of excellence, they haven’t quite managed to put everything together for that one perfect race. But yesterday they showed me that they’re not that far off the mark. That’s why, all things considered, I look at Sunday’s race in Dover as a success rather than a failure. The best is yet to come.