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Friday, December 15, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: AJ Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger
Age: 25
Crew Chief: Rick Viers

Of the seven rookies scheduled to appear in 2007, the greatest unknown is AJ Allmendinger. Maybe unknown isn't the right word, how about greenest rookie in stock cars? Every rookie is a wildcard to some degree. Juan-Pablo Montoya comes from an open-wheel background with very little stock car experience. At least Montoya is with an established team that is inside the top 35. David Reutimann will drive for
Toyota and will have no owner’s points. At least Reutimann has 107 combined starts among the three NASCAR series. Allmendinger begins with two strikes. He has little stock car experience and will drive for Team Red Bull, a team yet to run a NASCAR race. A brand new driver to stock cars hired by a brand new team. It will be a rough season all around. It is difficult to know exactly how the year will play out because there is not a lot known about Team Red Bull.

So what do we know about Allmendinger? He spent the last three years in the Champ Car World Series. After four second place finishes in 2005, he enjoyed a breakout year in 2006. He won five races, including three straight, and finished third in points. He was one of three Americans to race in the CCWS in 2006, and the only one with more than one start.

During his off weeks in 2006, Allmendinger began testing a truck for Bill Davis Racing. He drove in three Craftsman Truck races, and stoking an interest in stock car racing for Allmendinger. His NASCAR debut was at the New Hampshire truck race. He qualified 33rd and grinded out a 13th place finish. That was followed by a fifth at Talladega. For his first two races in a top stock car series, it was impressive. His final race of the year was at Atlanta. After qualifying on the outside front row, he crashed on the fifth lap. He also attempted to qualify for the Atlanta and Texas Cup events. Cup qualifying was rained out and he was too slow at Texas.

At this point Allmendinger’s stock car resume is three truck races and two failed Cup races. If you are keeping score, that’s 307 truck laps, 2 qualifying laps at Texas and 26 practice laps at Texas. No driver in recent memory has landed a full-time Cup with such little experience. By comparison Montoya raced in 7 races among ARCA, Busch and Cup.

Further, Allmendinger has little oval experience compared to an open wheel driver transitioning from the IRL. The only ovals he raced at in ChampCar were Milwaukee and Las Vegas. Vegas is the only track that has a Cup event. Drivers like Montoya and Sam Hornish are much more familiar with many of the Nextel Cup's oval tracks.

Allmendinger is only 25, and is certainly a top prospect in any racing series. This doesn't mean he won't succeed in NASCAR. It only points out the enormous hurdles he faces compared to other rookies and young drivers in the ranks.

In a whirlwind season, the two tracks that will lend comfort are Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Road racing obviously shouldn’t be a problem. Sonoma is too soon in the year to expect great success, Allmendinger will still be getting comfortable to the heavier, less precise stock cars. Watkins Glen should be circled on the schedule. By August, he should be ready to make a serious run at a top ten or top five.

So what do we know about Team Red Bull? Not as much as other teams. While Michael Waltrip Racing seems to have frequent releases and announcements, Red Bull tends to keep a lower profile. Aside from deep pockets, Team Red Bull does not assume any competitive advantages to help their 2007 campaign. No owners points or champion provisional, zero NASCAR races started which also means very few notes from 2006. Their key hires have come from top organizations like Evernham, Ford Racing and especially luring Doug Richert from Roush Racing.

Crew Chief Rick Viers will be the largest key to Allmendinger's progress. Viers worked last year for Bill Davis Racing, helping in the Truck Series as well as Bill Lester's two Cup races. He also was crew chief during Allmendinger's three Truck races. Job number one is finding a fast qualfying setup. Once they make some races the goals must be to get laps, avoid too many crashes and start compiling a good notebook. Finding a Busch ride for more seat time would help too.

Allmendinger is obviously talented and plenty of open wheel drivers have succeeded in Cup. Unfortunately, 2007 might be the most competitive season ever. Making the field every week will be challenging for the 10-15 teams outside the magical 35 window. The good news is that Red Bull and Toyota are prepared to struggle next year, and Allmendinger should get plenty of leniency. Once he does figure it out, Red Bull might reap the rewards for thinking outside the box.

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