Who Was That Masked Man?
Did anyone else see a masked man in an outlandish green car steal Superman's cape for the first half of the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway? Yes, that was AJ Allmendinger aka "The Dinger" in the #43 Insignia Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. After qualifying second behind "Superman" Jimmie Johnson, many people expected the former open-wheel driver turned superhero to fade into the background as the Chase drivers took over the race. Instead, The Dinger marched right past Superman on lap 14 and not only stole his cape, but further tweaked his nose by putting almost a 6 second lead on the 4-time champion. Eventually a cut tire would foil The Dinger's bid for a win, but the team did rebound nicely for a top-10 finish.
To put AJ's early race domination in perspective, the driver of the #43 car had only led a total of 43 laps since coming to NASCAR in 2007. In the first 172 laps of Sunday's race at the Monster Mile, AJ led a total of 143 laps - over three times his career record. That's a whole lot of 43's floating around, which is perhaps a good omen for the future of the car # that Richard Petty made famous. Given AJ's impressive runs in the last three races, there is a lot of reason for optimism in the Petty camp. If the 43 team can carry this momentum through the end of the year and into the first part of 2011, there is a very good chance that they will end up in Victory Lane in the near future and possibly even land a spot in the Chase for next year's championship.
Now that AJ has signed his extension to stay on at Richard Petty Motorsports and Marcos Ambrose has been pegged to replace Kasey Kahne in the #9 car, the company can focus on its future. There has been a lot of distractions over the first three quarters of the year with Kasey Kahne announcing that he was leaving, and then Budweiser moving over to Richard Childress Racing along with driver Paul Menard and his family owned sponsor Menard's. By mid-summer with Elliott Sadler also looking to be out of favor with the team and AJ on the fence as he explored his options, there were questions about whether RPM would even be around in 2011. Now with two talented drivers signed and the possibility of third if sponsorship is found, RPM is looking like it will not only survive, but may thrive with its concentrated resources.
With impressive performance being shown on the racetrack, the biggest thing that needs to happen right now is for Best Buy, the current primary sponsor of AJ and the #43 team, to stay on board. Stanley has already agreed to be the major sponsor on the #9 of Marcos Ambrose, but Best Buy has yet to make a commitment. The company has a relatively new CEO in Brian J. Dunn, who moved into that position in June of 2009, and they are also in the process of a major expansion project by branching into the United Kingdom, so they have a lot on their plate at the moment. That's no excuse for waiting this far into the season to make a decision, though - the time to act is now!
In my opinion it would be a huge folly on their part not to renew their association with Richard Petty Motorsports. I think that the 43 team is showing the potential for getting Best Buy a huge advertising boost by garnering some major television time. In the Dover event alone AJ managed to get the second most number of camera shots, and if you didn't see that Insignia green #43 car during the broadcast then you simply couldn't have been watching. It won't be long until seeing that car becomes commonplace on race days, along with whoever is on the hood of it.
After spending so much of the season in a state of flux, RPM is solidifying their plans for the future. AJ seems to have gotten his head into the game after announcing his contract renewal, and according to interviews it appears that the team is changing around some personnel within the organization in preparation for next year also. Right now the only detail that is lacking is finalization of sponsorship. So come on, Best Buy. Everyone else has stepped up and now it's your turn. Join the #43 team for a trip to Victory Lane - The Dinger will get you there!