After finishing off his practice sessions at New Hampshire in 14th, 21st, and 19th – not to mention an unremarkable 28th place starting spot – I didn’t have high hopes for AJ to have a great weekend. I always expect top 20 finishes, with a top 15 being a good day and a top 10 being a great day. A top 10 seemed so far out of reach though that I was just hoping for another solid top 15 to extend AJ’s streak of consecutive finishes in that range.
But one thing you can never do in NASCAR is make an assumption based on practice and qualifying times. From the moment that AJ took the green flag on Sunday afternoon, his #43 Berlin City Auto Group car was hooked up. While everyone fought with rear grip, AJ said he was as close to perfect as they could get. He quickly made pass after pass and was in the top 20 in the blink of an eye.
What was so remarkable about it was that the tires didn’t seem to have a lot of falloff. Most guys were either good at the start and then they would fade, or else they would start off horrible and then get fast at the end of the run. AJ’s car was fast throughout the whole tire cycle, and he was consistently running times as good as the leader.
When the first caution came out I’m sure Mike Shiplett had originally planned to make a two-tire stop to get AJ some track position, but with such a great handling car AJ was able to make passes on the track and gain spots without resorting to strategy. So the crew put on four tires and AJ restarted back in the pack again, and just as swiftly as before moved up into the top 15.
That call turned out to be a good one, because the race went green flag for three long stretches after that, and AJ might have suffered from the extra tire wear if he had only taken two. Instead, he steadily climbed through the field until he was safely inside the top 10. Even a couple of yellow flag stops didn’t hurt him as sometimes happen, and the #43 crew stepped up and kept him in contention.
As the closing laps started to play out, AJ ran solidly in 4th position. When it was clear that he could not catch Kyle Busch for 3rd place, AJ decided to play it smart and slowed his lap times to try and save tires just in case he needed them for a late race restart, while still staying well ahead of the 5th place car.
Of course that late race caution did happen, and the leaders brought the 14 cars that were left on the lead lap down pit road. Knowing that most everyone would take two tires, Mike decided to play that strategy also and put just right side tires on the #43 machine. Unfortunately, that was the key stop of the race and the #43 guys had some sort of bauble that cost AJ a couple of positions. Not only that, but when he restarted in 6th spot there were guys behind him that had four tires instead of just two.
With a good restart AJ knew that he could get ahead of those cars and possibly salvage a top 5 out of the day, but as usual he was knocked around by other cars jockeying for position. It has become a habit for drivers in the series now to push people out of the way during restarts near the end of the race. And while AJ benefitted from Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya beating and banging on each other, he was later mistreated himself at the hands of Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer.
Never having taken two tires during the entire race, AJ and Mike Shiplett didn’t know how the car would react to the changes so that they could adjust the handling for the situation. As the final laps ran out under green the car just wasn’t handling as good as it had been earlier and AJ’s two tires faded to some of the guys who had taken four. He still managed to salvage a top 10 finish out of the day, but it was disappointing after having a top 5 car for much of the race.
I learned a big lesson on Sunday though, which was that I should never underestimate my driver or his team. The #43 crew has made huge strides in improving their cars and have been very competitive over the last several races. Top 15 finishes are now the norm, and top 10’s are getting more frequent. It won’t be long until AJ is running inside the top 5 on a regular basis, and a win is sure to follow. And up next is a track where unpredictable is the word of the day. AJ was fast there in February, and is sure to be up front and lead some laps this weekend.