The Best of the Rest
The Chase field was locked in last Saturday night at Richmond with no big surprises or last minute changes. It would have made it more exciting if someone had pulled off the “win and in” scenario by taking a victory in the race and stealing a wildcard spot. It would have been especially nice if the driver who pulled that off was AJ Allmendinger, but there is no disappointment for this Dinger fan that it didn’t play out that way. A win was a long shot considering the stage of development that the #43 Best Buy team is at. I was very pleased that they put together another solid run, had a fast car, and fought through some adversity to make it back for an eleventh place finish. Not just pleased – I was thrilled!
I’m a big picture kind of NASCAR fan. I try not to invest too heavily in one particular race or even one particular season and let that define success for my driver. I’ve been a fan of AJ’s since he came into the sport full time in 2007. When you spend two seasons agonizing over every qualifying session just to know if your driver is going to race or not, the definition of success is subjective. Just making the races in those days was a victory, and then top 30 finishes which gradually progressed to top 20’s. Then it started all over again when he moved to what is now Richard Petty Motorsports. Sponsorship was race to race in 2009 and then 2010 brought a whole new issue with the financial stability of the team. Even making it to the race track each weekend wasn’t a given.
So a Chase berth, or even a race win, doesn’t define success for me when I look at AJ. It’s the overall experience that he has gone through, and the constant improvement that he has shown that’s impressive to me. AJ’s career in stock cars reminds me of the way things used to be in the sport when drivers started out with lower-tier teams and gradually worked their way through the ranks. AJ had a steep learning curve coming into NASCAR with a first-year team and first-year manufacturer, especially considering the fact that he had no stock car experience. It wasn’t that way for a lot of this year’s championship contenders like Johnson, Gordon, Hamlin, Busch, etc where they came to the Cup series with race winning equipment and established, championship-caliber team owners.
To me there is no disappointment at all in the #43 team not being in the Chase. I would have loved to see it happen for them, because I think that the driver, crew chief, team, and sponsor all deserve to be talked about on a weekly basis, which won’t happen now that they aren’t in a Chase spot. They have so much to hold their heads high about, however. It has been a solid season for AJ and his team. They’ve had fast cars, and other than getting bitten by strategy a couple of times, for the most part have just had some really solid runs.
The biggest positive factor I’ve taken from this year so far is the constant improvement. I’ve watched them progress from a top 20 team to a top 15 team, and they are now showing the potential to be a top 10 team. It won’t be long before they’re a consistent top 5 team, and once they are in the position of being in the top 5 on a regular basis, the opportunity to win will be there each week. I know it’s coming – it’s just a matter of time and making sure they’re in position to make it happen.
Stealing an unexpected win in the next ten races would be great, but gaining consistency and earning a solid win next year is even better. Because that means the potential is there to continue winning on a regular basis. The #43 team has one of the most talented drivers on the circuit, an excellent crew chief in Greg Erwin, and very fast cars. It’s just a matter of putting all those ingredients in the mix and adding a dash of luck in order to attain those wins. What they don’t need is a lot of pressure by people saying that they have to win this season. They don’t have to win to prove anything. Their constant progression forward and the way that whole organization has bounced back from the uncertainty of last year is proof enough that they’re on their way to winning.
There are still a lot of goals that I’m sure AJ and team would like to attain before the year is out. A pole win would be great, and is definitely a possibility since AJ has three 2nd place starts already this year. Some more top 5’s to add to his one in the first Charlotte race would look good in the statistics book. Finishing top 15 in points is also a very attainable goal considering they’re currently in 13th. In fact, there’s a very good chance of them keeping that 13th position – the best of the rest, so to speak. So win or not, Chase team or not – the #43 group still has great things ahead this year.
Unfortunately, next year isn’t locked up for sponsorship yet at RPM. Economic times are taking their toll on corporations, large and small. Those advertising dollars spent in the sport are getting harder and harder to justify, but faith in AJ and his team look justified to me. Sponsors should be knocking on the door to get their company’s name on the #43 car. If they’re not – those sponsors are going to be missing out on trips to Victory Lane in the future. I’d be willing to put my money on it, and so should they. Because when I look at AJ and the #43 team, I see a Chase team. Just because it didn’t happen this year doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. It will. Bank on it!