AJ Allmendinger labeled last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout as a "learning experience" that will have him better prepared for the upcoming Daytona 500 weekend. Dinger is optimistic about his Todd Gordon-led Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Team's chances in Thursday's qualifying race and Sunday's 54th annual running of the Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.
"We certainly learned a lot out there last weekend," said Allmendinger, who finished 12th in last Saturday night's special non-points race. "Pack racing is back, that's for sure. That was very evident in the Shootout. We saw several different strategies. Some teams went all out from the drop of the green. Others, like us, took a ‘hang back and wait' approach. That almost paid off for our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Team there at the end.
"The new package we're racing with gives the driver more control of the car and that's a good feeling to have," offered Allmendinger, who will start ninth in Thursday's second Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying race. "But if you're running in a huge pack of cars that's three-wide and eight-deep, that control turns out to be not much in avoiding getting caught up in the big crashes. That's what we saw last Saturday night.
"There's just such a fast closing rate with the new package," said AJ. "That's what we're seeing. If you're not hooked up, the guys who are hooked up can get a really good run. We saw so many situations where cars were getting into the left-rear of the guys running in front of them. That's what triggered the big crashes out there and is what we have to be aware of again this week.
"Hopefully in the Duels, we'll see guys trying to take car of their cars a bit more," Dinger said. "You know it's your 500 car and you don't want to damage it. Everybody is still out there to go for the win and get a good starting spot for Sunday, but hopefully it'll be a little calmer out there on Thursday than it was last Saturday night."
One might say that the strategy utilized by Allmendinger and Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski was one of survival last weekend at Daytona. Perhaps the words of wisdom made famous by legendary Penske driver Rick Mears - "To finish first, you must first finish" - were adhered to?
"Like we've been saying ever since we arrived in Daytona, we're focusing on the big picture," said crew chief Gordon. "Last Saturday night, it didn't matter where you were running after 25 laps and it didn't matter where you were running after 70 laps. The objective was to be in the position to go for it at the right time.
"It will be the same goal out there in our qualifying race and in the 500," Gordon said. "It's 60 laps of racing on Thursday and 200 laps on Sunday. The purpose for being out there in the first place is to win and you can't do that if you're on the hook and being pulled back to the garage. Our strategy will remain the same and that's to do what it takes to be in a position to win at the end of the race.
"AJ's tremendous focus and level of patience have been so impressive," Gordon said of his driver. "We've been working so well with our teammates over on the No. 2 team. You can expect to see AJ and Brad (Keselowski) hooking up together a lot from Wednesday's practice on this week. Since we're in different duels on Thursday, we'll get a plan going as for someone to run with in that race."
In five career Gatorade Duel qualifying races, Allmendinger has posted three top-10 finishes, finishing seventh in both 2010 and 2011 editions. He has been running at the finish and completed all the laps for four consecutive Duels.
Allmendinger's third-place finish in the 2009 Daytona 500 rates as his best result to date in seven career points races on the 2.5-mile track (three starts in the Daytona 500 and four starts in the July Coke Zero 400). He started 15th and drove to an 11th-place finish in last year's Daytona 500.
"We started 15th and were able to head to the front and lead early in the race," recalled AJ, who was credited as leading four of the first 12 laps. "Then we settled into a situation where we ran like 15th to 20th for much of the race. It was another day when it seemed like every time we were moving up, a slow stop on pit road would set us back. We were able to capitalize on the cautions and come up with a respectable 11th-place finish.
"While that third in the 2009 Daytona 500 might be the best finish for us in the record book, it wasn't the strongest car we've had in the race," said Dinger. "We had a rocket ship there for the 500 in 2010. We changed engines and had to start at the rear of the field, but were able to blast up through the pack to lead. I think we had the car to beat until they had problems with the track and the pothole got us."
Allmendinger, Gordon and crew are racing their "PRS-642" Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger in this week's action at Daytona. Thursday's qualifying race will mark its first time in racing competition. The "PRS-626" will serve as the team's backup Dodge Charger this week.