Martinsville weekend started decent for AJ Allmendinger and his #43 Best Buy Racing team. During the two practices on Friday the team made some gains in trying to find grip, which everyone was struggling with after Goodyear brought a different tire compound that did not seem to be putting rubber in the racetrack. The Richard Petty Motorsports team was in the top half of practice times for both sessions and then AJ set down an outstanding qualifying lap on Saturday morning that landed him a 6th place starting spot for Sunday’s race.
With AJ starting in the top 10 for the first time ever at Martinsville, and also carrying a decal for Hall of Fame inductee Lee Petty on the rear deck lid, expectations were high at the drop of the green flag on Sunday. After starting on the outside row, spotter Tony Hirschman did a great job getting AJ down to the bottom of the track without losing any positions. Then AJ circled the track nose to tail, trying to stay as tight to the bottom as he could to protect his position.
About 20 laps into the race, AJ radioed in that he had already lost grip in the right rear of the car and just couldn’t get off the corner like he needed to. The cars behind him were able to get a bumper inside him on the straightaways and take away the inside line going into the corner, and AJ began falling backwards. By lap 50 the #43 Ford was in danger of dropping out of the top 15 when a caution finally fell and AJ was able to bring the car in to crew chief Mike Shiplett for adjustments.
The team made some major changes and AJ got blocked in by the #20 car of Joey Logano, but he still managed to come out of the pits in 19th place. From then on AJ worked on getting back inside the top 15 with a car that was better, but still not quite what he needed. The team kept working hard though, and the track started taking on a little bit of rubber that changed the handling some also. By lap 100 AJ was inside the top 15 and another positive change on the following pit stop allowed him to race into the top 10 by lap 135.
AJ remained inside the top 10, climbing as high as 7th, during the remainder of the first half of the 500 lap race. Then pit strategy to come in for 4 tires when some cars stayed out and a bunch more only took 2 landed AJ outside the top 20 for the first time in the race. It looked to be an un-wise pit call for awhile as AJ narrowly avoided two wrecks that commonly occur mid-pack. But with good luck and Tony’s skill on top of the spotter’s stand, AJ managed to stay out of trouble and with fresher tires than most of the field he raced back inside the top 10 by lap 300.
As green flag stops cycled through, AJ led some laps before pitting and then came out in 6th position. A caution shortly thereafter put everyone back on the same pit cycle and left AJ battling for a top 5 during the following 100 laps with drivers named Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch. Not too bad for a kid who cut his teeth racing go-karts and is one of the few open-wheel drivers who has had success transitioning to stock cars.
The lone bad break of the #43 team’s day was also one of the hardest to swallow, because it happened too late in the race to recover from it. As another round of green flag stops cycled through with about 35 to go, AJ was caught on pit road when the caution came out for the #78 car of Regan Smith. Mike Shiplett made a split second decision for AJ to continue through the pits without stopping to try and come out ahead of the race leader, but unfortunately AJ was trapped a lap down. And since the #43 hadn’t pitted yet, they couldn’t take the wave around to get back on the lead lap like the other cars who had already made their stops did.
AJ vented his frustration at having such bad luck, but fought hard to get in the lucky dog position for the inevitable caution that would happen. But the caution never came, although AJ maintained pace with the leaders and did pick up a few more positions as other cars fell a lap down. After having a car that was capable of a top 5 finish, it was a disappointment to see it take the checkers in 14th place.
As a very vocal AJ supporter and someone who regularly visits all the posting boards to see what people are saying in post-race chatter, I was very surprised to encounter so much backlash this week against AJ’s crew chief. I’m not sure the cause for it, other than it was very frustrating to see a good finish evaporate into thin air and maybe people just needed somewhere to place that anger.
I'm not immune to that same anger and frustration, and I’ll admit that I’ve called for Mike’s head on a platter a time or two myself when I felt like he had failed my driver. But in my opinion this wasn’t one of those times, so this week I'm defending him. Granted, I'm no crew chief - I'm just a fan who is no expert in anything other than listening to radio scanner every weekend. This is just my take on what happened in the last pit sequence, including possible alternate outcomes.
There are a few different scenarios that could have happened in the final 125 laps of Sunday’s race that might have changed the outcome. For instance, there might have been no caution and green flag stops could have cycled through. But in that case, there were half a dozen cars who were on a different pit cycle and could go the distance on fuel. So AJ probably would have finished around 10th.
Another option would have been for Mike to go ahead and pit the car when the yellow flag came out and then AJ could have taken the wave around like Denny Hamlin. But the wave around cars really had little advantage in those final 30 laps because they had to start at the tail end of the field behind the lap down cars and all of the damaged cars who were still out there making laps. Denny Hamlin finished 12th, just two spots ahead of AJ. So there really was no disadvantage to Mike trying to get AJ off pit road in front of the leader and a whole lot of advantage if he did manage it.
A few people have pointed out that the bad pit call was made clear back on lap 372, which is when Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kevin Harvick hit pit road, and which ultimately put them up front while everyone else made green flag pit stops. But that option was discussed at the time, and Mike Shiplett very clearly said on the radio that the #43 team would not be in their pit window for making it to the end of the race should it go green. And anyone who knows AJ’s history should understand that a gamble on fuel has never worked out in his favor. Without knowing for certain that a caution would come out, Mike’s decision not to pit at lap 372 was a good one, in my opinion.
The only possible scenario that would have allowed AJ to contend for a top 5 spot was if the caution had happened before he pitted. But as Mike explained on the radio after the incident, they only had two laps before they HAD to pit. And without being psychic and knowing that a caution was eminent, there was no reason to risk having AJ run out of gas and possibly end up outside the top 20. Not to mention that during the prior cycle of green flag stops when AJ led for some bonus points, they lost a lot of time to the cars he was racing around by staying out on older tires for too long.
So I understand the frustration that other AJ and Petty fans are experiencing after being handed such a low blow at the end of the race, but in my opinion it really was just a bad break. I’ve always been a proponent of the fact that you make your own luck, but sometimes stuff just happens and it’s no one’s fault. That’s my take on what happened in Sunday’s race at Martinsville. Yes, it was disappointing, but it was by no means devastating. The entire #43 group should hold their head high and be proud of how they ran Sunday. It was a great team effort.