[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch may have won the last four Sprint Cup Series races at the Dover International Speedway but they weren’t the ones who stole the show. Keeping in their tire tracks has been Los Gatos, California native AJ Allmendinger in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion. And had it not been for one too many mistakes Allmendinger, not Johnson or Busch, could have been the driver in victory lane.
Costly mistakes like running in the top five last year then having a loose lug nut and subsequent vibration force Allmendinger down pit road for an unscheduled stop. It resulted in a 14th place finish for a car that could have ended up at least third.
Last fall Allmendinger led 143 laps and at one time had a six second lead on Johnson but only finished 10th. This time a cut tire the culprit. As the series again heads north to do battle with the Monster Mile, Allmendinger said he’s pumped up about it.
“For me, I really enjoy Dover,” he said last weekend. “It’s a place that I’ve liked as soon as I got there. Obviously, it’s high-banked and fast. It’s just really a fun place to drive each lap that you’re on it and, relatively, we’ve had really fast racecars there, so I was excited.”
His average finish of 23.6 at the track comes from his performance in his first five showings. He best start was seventh but his best finish was 16th. His other finishes were 29th or worse. In the three races since then Allmendinger has started no worse than 19th and started outside pole last fall. In that span he’s also finished no worse than 14th, his best being a seventh in the fall of 2009.
In his eight starts Allmendinger has done everything but win. The difference this year could be the added practice and familiarity he’ll have with an important factor on Sunday after participating in the Dover tire test. Allmendinger hopes history repeats itself after seeing what Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya accomplished after participating in the 2009 tire test. When race weekend rolled around they qualified first and second then finished first and fourth respectively.
“We did the Goodyear tire test there and it went really well,” said Allmendinger. “So, for me, I’m trying to get through Darlington and have a good run and, hopefully, be consistent here and keep ourselves up in the points, and then I’m really looking forward to Dover.”
Allmendinger did indeed get through Darlington. He finished 20th and brought the car home in one piece, which was good enough to hold onto 11th place in the point standings, just outside a Chase position with the new format in 2011.
New is what Allmendinger is hoping for. Well aware of the biggest storylines and new winners the series has already seen from Cinderella stories Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith, the young 2011 season is already one to remember and has led to talk of who could be next.
Dover, for its monster reputation, can be quite nice. Especially to those looking for their first career win. Take Martin Truex Jr. in 2007 in the Sprint Cup Series. Or Scott Speed, 2008, Brian Scott, 2009 and Aric Almirola, 2010, in the Camping World Truck Series. Allmendinger should already have a win on his resume, not just at Dover. But Dover, maybe more so than anywhere else, is where he knows he can run with big boys. And it gives him confidence heading into this weekend’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.
“I know I can make it happen and hopefully take home the win,” said Allmendinger. “I see these guys this year that are winning for the first time and I’m happy for them, but I want to be that guy so badly. Dover is a great track and I hope it happens for us this weekend.”
Bayne and Smith, who won two of NASCAR’s most prestigious races, also took home two of the most coveted trophies in the sport. Dover isn’t considered one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, but should Allmendinger win on Sunday, he says he’ll be taking home something coveted too.
“Dover has one of the greatest trophies of the season, so it’s one I really want to take home.”