Sunday’s Daytona 500 started under gorgeous Florida blue sky and was blessed with good weather and no potholes for the entire duration. There were a record 74 lead changes among a record 22 different leaders. There were also a record number of cautions and Trevor Bayne became the record youngest driver to ever win the Daytona 500 at 20 years and 1 day old.
With so many records broken during the Daytona 500, I hoped to see a record high finish for AJ Allmendinger in his #43 Best Buy Ford entry also. After obtaining a career best finish of 3rd in 2009, the 29 year old California native looked like he might have the car to beat that number when this year’s Great American Race started. He began the race in 15th position and by lap 4 was in the lead with the help of Hendrick Motorsports driver Mark Martin. The two started nose to tail and had worked out a plan to pair up in this new style of tandem racing that plate racing has morphed into.
The plan looked to be working as AJ and Mark stayed among the frontrunners during the first ten laps of the race. AJ led four laps total in those first dozen laps and was scored as the leader of the race after a caution came out for the blown motor of JJ Yeley. Crew chief Mike Shiplett then called the #43 driver down to pit road to top of with fuel while a handful of drivers who had pitted on an earlier lap stayed out. Mark Martin had also pitted and the two restarted mid-pack with the same plan of working together.
Unfortunately, the dirty air and close side by side racing in the middle of the field made it difficult for cars to latch together and move to the front like they had been able to do earlier. The two fell back to stay out of trouble when it became clear that they were in the eye of a building storm and at lap 20 AJ was scored in the 33rd position. Then caution came out for the blown engine of Kevin Harvick and Shiplett decided to see if right side tires would help AJ and Mark move forward in the field.
When the race restarted on lap 26, AJ and Mark were in the middle of the pack again but were making forward progress. Then Michael Waltrip and David Reutimann got in a tangle in front of them and both drivers were caught up in the Big One which took out some of last year’s Championship contenders. Thankfully AJ only got a small amount of right front nose damage and the crew was able to get him patched up without losing a lap. His partner in the #5 car wasn’t so lucky and went 3 laps down while under repairs on pit road.
With AJ restarting at the back of the field after multiple pit stops and Mark behind him with the lapped cars, the two decided to go ahead and work together once again. The racing got wild pretty much immediately so the two drivers just took their time until they had room to maneuver and then hooked up and ticked off laps. Despite being 3 laps down, Mark managed to get those laps back during the numerous cautions that came out in the mid-section of the race. Sometimes he and AJ restarted together and paired up, and sometimes they were too far apart to make it work and had to choose different dancing partners. AJ worked well with Roush alliance member Carl Edwards, former teammate Paul Menard, and former Petty Enterprises driver Bobby Labonte.
By the last quarter of the race however, Mark was back on the lead lap and near enough to AJ on a restart for the two to get hooked up again. They worked their way back up into top 10 contention and looked to have a strong pairing to go for the lead in the final laps. While pitting for fuel on lap 160 though, AJ got hit on pit road by the #32 car of Terry Labonte and had to come back in for repairs. Then under a subsequent caution, AJ felt like he had run over some debris and pitted for a possible flat tire.
With AJ in the back and Mark up front, AJ had to rely on other drivers to work his way forward. Paul Menard, who was blessed with one of those powerhouse ECR engines under the hood of his Childress car, was a good choice and Paul latched onto AJ’s back bumper for the final run towards the front. They managed to get up into the top 10, but without taking it 3 or 4 wide on the other two-car tandems, they just didn’t have anywhere to go and couldn’t make any forward progress.
AJ ended up taking the checkered flag in 11th position, which was a great finish considering the damage he got in the Big One and the later damage on pit road. He was able to stay clear of major disaster for the entire race and gained some valuable experience on how to work the two-car drafting that I believe we will see again at both Talladega races and possibly at Daytona in July. He is also tied with Mark Martin for 9th/10th position in the points and has some positive momentum heading to Phoenix, where he sat on the pole last year. All in all it was a very good day for the #43 Best Buy Ford.