Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tuesday Ramble - Kansas Edition

Petty Team Shows Championship Material

When AJ Allmendinger scored his first career top ten finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2008, I didn’t think I would ever be happier for a 10th place result. Sunday’s finish at Kansas Speedway rivaled that elation, though. You would think that the run at Dover the prior week where AJ led 143 laps before having a tire go flat, and then coming back from a lap down to finish 10th, would be better than what happened at Kansas. In some ways it was. There was definitely some satisfaction in seeing that #43 Insignia Ford run fast in every practice, sit on the outside pole, and then be dominant in the race. However, what excited me about the Kansas finish is not the single-race result, but the implications for the future.

On any given weekend there are fast cars and there are cars that struggle. What sets the good teams apart is their ability to take a car that isn’t handling well and make it better. Hitting on a setup that is fast all weekend is a great thing, but it doesn’t happen very often. And the word that defines success in NASCAR is consistency. It’s all about learning how to recover from not unloading fast or from not qualifying well. Look at what the regular season points leader Kevin Harvick was able to do through the first part of the year as an example. They didn’t qualify well at a lot of tracks, ran in twenty-something place for ¾ of the race, and then somehow ended up with a top 10 finish at the end of the day. That is the same kind of mettle that the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports team showed this weekend.

From the time AJ hit the track they were struggling to find grip. It wasn’t just getting bite off the corner or turning through the middle – they couldn’t find traction anywhere. The car was pushing the front through the corner, and anytime they helped that condition it just made the rear grip worse. Not only that, but the car was unstable – the back end was twitching around and dancing all the way through the corner so much that it was obvious even watching it on television. AJ almost lost it in turn 2 on his qualifying lap and could only recover enough in his second lap to garner a 30th place start. Prospects were looking dismal for him being able to continue his streak of good runs.

Then something amazing happened on Sunday. Even knowing that RPM has been focusing their engineering resources on the Mike Shiplett led Insignia crew, I had serious doubts that they were going to be able to fix the handling of the car. I listened to the scanner just like always though, and heard what was quite possibly the best round of communication that I’ve ever heard out of that team. While AJ was obviously frustrated with his car as he ran right around 25th place for the first half of the race, he did a wonderful job of keeping a positive attitude. He was able to convey his dissatisfaction without bringing the team down, and even when he had a hard time explaining what he needed to make the car better, crew chief Mike Shiplett kept asking questions to try and understand what was happening so he could devise a plan of action.

I heard discussions about the car that I’ve never heard in my almost four years of listening to AJ’s scanners. Discussions that are probably used in the normal course of race practices and testing, but not usually during the race itself. And near the ¾ point of the race that in-depth communication apparently paid off as the team finally seemed to hit on something that would help the car. Along with a fabulous final pit stop that redeemed the pit crew from a couple slow ones earlier, as well as a driver who was driving his heart out each and every lap, the team’s perseverance resulted in a last lap pass to put the #43 Insignia Ford in 10th place. I wish I had recorded the audio so that I could give some examples of what I heard that impressed me so much, but I didn’t see any point in it after not expecting much in the way of results.

All I can say is that Mike Shiplett and the engineering team kept digging to find a solution. AJ’s spotter Tony Hirschman gave AJ pointers on which lines were working and kept him calm, as he always does. And AJ kept fighting tooth and nail to improve his position while only taking as much as the car was giving him. If he tried to take too much he likely would have ended up in the wall. Even in the closing laps as AJ ran down the #1 car of Jamie McMurray, Tony came on the radio and told AJ to just continue what he was doing and he would catch him, not letting the driver’s natural instinct to push harder destroy all that they had gained. And sure enough, AJ caught Jamie, set him up for the pass, and executed it with a flair that I wish the ESPN cameras had managed to catch more than a glimpse of.

So while AJ finished in the same position he did last week, I was more impressed with this week’s results. Anybody can take a good car and drive it to the front. It takes a great deal of teamwork, determination, and pure grit to take a bad car and do the same thing. Last weekend at Dover the #43 Insignia team showed me that they have what it takes to be race winners. This week they showed me that they have what it takes to be championship contenders in the future. When the green flag waved at Kansas I thought the race was going to be a total throwaway, but I have never been so happy to say that I was wrong. Yes, that does happen every once in a while.

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