Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Q & A with NSCS Driver, A.J. Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger pilots the No. 43 Best Buy Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports back to the track where he had his top two qualifying efforts last season, grabbing his first career pole in the spring Phoenix race and following that up with a second-place qualifying effort in the fall race. Allmendinger sat down with Ford Racing to discuss what that was like last year, the message he got from team owner Richard Petty, and how the impending changes to Phoenix International Raceway might affect him and more.

AJ ALLMENDINGER – No. 43 Best Buy Ford Fusion
YOU SAT ON THE POLE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN YOUR CUP CAREER AT THE FIRST PHOENIX RACE LAST YEAR, IN RETROSPECT, HOW DID THAT FEEL AND WHAT KIND OF CONFIDENCE DID IT GIVE YOU? “Since I have been with Mike (Shiplett) and the guys I feel like we have always qualified well at Phoenix, even back in 2008 when I did the five races with the team. Phoenix has always been a place we have been fast. I like it because I think there is more driver technique that you have to use there since it is a lot flatter track. It was cool because we were fast in practice, and we have been fast in practice before there, we went out for qualifying and it is such an easy place to miss your marks. We always just missed it a little bit. It was really cool when Mike came over the radio to say ‘You are on the pole!’ and I remember my leg was shaking down the back straightaway because he told me that if I couldn’t get any more to shut it down. Driver optimism kicked in at that point and I figured I could drive it into three and get even more. It was really cool. We almost sat on pole the second race there too. Our qualifying package has been really good there and our race package has been decent, but that is something that we focused on in the off season, to get better at that there.”

YOU AND THE KING HAD A COOL EXCHANGE AFTER YOU GOT THE POLE, DO YOU REMEMBER THAT MOMENT AND WHAT WAS SAID? “Yeah, he said in a nice way to not screw this up. He kind of gave one of those fatherly pep talks about how proud he was, but how we had to focus on the real thing. I didn’t know at the time that the 43 car hadn’t been on pole for like 11 years. I didn’t realize the significance of it at that point. I realized it after the fact when people started telling me about it. It was a cool feeling. It is nice to get your first one out of the way and I felt like that was a real turning point for us qualifying during the season. We were absolutely horrible the first few races in qualifying. We were so bad and we had been pretty good the year before so I feel like Phoenix was a turning point for us in that regard. We had a couple of stretches in the middle of the year where we didn’t qualify well, but at the end of the season I felt like we unloaded well and had a chance to win the pole at every race. I think Phoenix though was the turning point for us when it came to qualifying.”

BECAUSE OF YOUR RECENT SUCCESS AT PHOENIX, DO YOU LOOK AT IT AS A PLACE WHERE YOU MIGHT ALSO BE ABLE TO GET YOUR FIRST CUP WIN? “I look at every track that way. We go in every weekend trying to go with the same attitude of winning, but, yeah, I think you look at tracks where we have had success at, Phoenix, Dover and Loudon especially, and you get a little more excited about it. Like I said, even though we have qualified well there and ran decent during the races, I don’t feel we have been contending for top-10s there and we need to get better at that. Over the offseason we have really been able to sit down and pinpoint the areas we needed to work on. In the little bit of testing we have done, we have focused on those areas and have ideas of how we can make it better. You don’t really know until you go to that place and get on the race track and feel what it is like, but I feel like we are going to have better race cars and the motors will be better. I think we have better ideas of what to do, so I am looking forward to it.”

IS IT DIFFICULT AS A DRIVER TO GO FROM A TRACK LIKE DAYTONA AND THAT STYLE OF RACING TO A PLACE LIKE PHOENIX AND THE STYLE YOU HAVE TO RUN THERE? “It isn’t a big deal at all. It is what we are paid to do and it is what makes it exciting. If every race track were the same it would be boring and you wouldn’t want to do it. It is something that every really good driver at this level is really good at, adapting to a new race track. You go there and you just get excited about every race track in its own right. Once you leave a track after a race your mindset immediately switches to the next track.”

AFTER THIS FIRST RACE AT PHOENIX THEY ARE GOING TO MAKE SOME CHANGES TO THE TRACK. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE IMPENDING CHANGES? “If I go win this first one, I will be really mad that they are changing it for the second one (laughter). If we struggle I will be really happy though. Phoenix is tough. It is kind of like Daytona. Maybe it needs to get repaved, I don’t really know. The track isn’t really breaking up there, but maybe it does need a repave. It is slick and there is hardly any grip, but that is what makes it fun. I have heard what they are doing and the ideas they are talking about with maybe more banking and stuff, but I don’t think we will really know until we see what it looks like. I don’t think you can have an opinion on it until then. I just need to focus on next week and then we will wait and see the repaving job and I am guessing NASCAR will give us a test there, but I don’t really know what my thoughts are until I see it.”

HOW MANY RACES INTO 2011 UNTIL YOU SORT OF KNOW WHAT KIND OF SEASON YOU MIGHT HAVE? “I think you just have to go in stages. If you look at the season, you can break it up into four parts. If you look at the first nine races as the first part of that, I think you can get a general idea after the first five or six races though. There are so many different styles of race tracks in those first five or six races. You come to Phoenix from Daytona, then Vegas which is a mile-and-a-half and then off to Fontana which is a different race track and Bristol and Martinsville. You get a lot of different race tracks in the first six races. You really get to see where you are at on all levels when it comes to the races. Our biggest thing last year and part of it was a new era coming into Ford and working with Roush Fenway because everything was different. We struggled at the beginning of the year, more than we thought we would. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. If we do everything to the best of our abilities and let the rest happen, then we should be okay. If something happens out of our control, then it does, but last year I made mistakes and us as a race team made mistakes. We took chances that didn’t work out. I think that you get to the All-Star break and you kind of see where you are at. At that point you can reset your goals. Hopefully, we get to that break and are inside that top-10 or on the verge of it and we know we can go compete. We have to be smart the first half of the season though. You can’t win the championship at the beginning of the year, but you can surely take yourself out of it. We did that last year and our goal is to be smart. We can be a top-15 team easily. At best, we think we can get inside that top-10 and compete for a championship. That is our goal.”

Credit - Ford Racing

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