An Interview With: A.J. Allmendinger
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the NASCAR teleconference in advance of Saturday night's 62nd Annual Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. With us today is A.J. Allmendinger, driver of the No. 43 Best Buy Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. He heads to Darlington 11th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings trailing 10th place Tony Stewart by 12 points. Welcome, A.J.
I think the biggest thing, especially with this points system the way it is we have not done anything to shoot ourselves in the foot.
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Thank you for having me.
THE MODERATOR: You're welcome. We're glad you're here. You're also on the move this week, about to crack the Top-10 for the second time this season and you head to a very pivotal racetrack.
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Yeah, we have kind of had just a solid year. We have not done anything spectacular yet. I think the biggest thing, especially with this points system the way it is we have not done anything to shoot ourselves in the foot. We had one really bad race at Bristol where we got caught up in an early wreck, but everything else has been pretty solid.
And we definitely need to improve in certain areas to really be a Top-10 contending team each week, but I'm proud of everybody for how hard they are working and everybody doing a good job and not really making a lot of mistakes to hurt ourselves.
Q. Interested in find out what you do to mentally prepare to race. Are there any pre-race rituals or habits you carry out to get your mind focused?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I wouldn't say there's any pre-race rituals or habits.
Before the weekend, especially with a racetrack like Darlington here this week, we have never really been that good there. So especially these types of racetracks, I'll watch videotape and stuff just to kind of go over it, watch some in-car cam just to see if I can learn anything to help me about the racetrack.
But really, as the week goes on pretty much just a habit that we go through in our practice and qualifying day. And then race days, on a night race it's a little bit harder because you sit around all day and wait, and everything hits at once and you go ahead with your schedule.
But really, I do go my sponsor stuff that I've got to do before the race and go to the driver's meeting and usually have lunch or dinner at that point and sit there and rest for about 30 minutes and kind of relax. And honestly it's a good time at that point. Nothing crazy or ritual or anything like that.
Q. You've been pretty solidly around the Top-10 this year. What is needed to take that to the Top-5, is it one or two things you can point to?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, I think there's just certain areas we've got to work on, really including Bristol. We had a Top-5 to a Top-10 car at some point during the race, every race we've been there. We've qualified up front. We have ran up front. The biggest thing for us is we have to get a little more consistent through the races.
I have to keep during the race (indiscernible), try to stay as patient as possible. We have got to start making the right adjustments. We are just missing a little bit. We kind of get off track and that hurts us a little bit throughout the race. I feel like in practice, if we can get our car and not be on such a nice etch, if the track changes throughout the race we won't miss the setup that much. I think that's what's hurt us a little bit.
For us really we have to work on the mile-and-a-half, two-mile program. I feel like our short track program is really good. I feel like we'll be really good at the road courses, especially with Marcus there. Those types of racetracks, when it comes to mile-and-a-half, two-mile, we have to get an overall race car starting in practice; so when the track changes we are not right there to where a small little thing kind of kills our race car and that's kind of what's hurt us really. Yeah, just come from race by race experience honestly.
Q. I've got a really off the wall question for you. How did you hear about Osama Bin Laden being taken out and your general thoughts on that accomplishment for this country? I know a lot of the guys it have Tweeted about it. What are your thoughts?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Let's see, where was I when that happened? I think I was actually laying in bed. And then it popped up on TV and then you get a couple of people that text you, "he'd dead, he's dead."
It's a big deal for the country and obviously a lot of his actions that he's done put our country -- whether or not it's economy or just heartache or just a lot of stuff that we've had to go through as a country, you know, it's really because of him honestly. It's a big deal and hopefully that's the first step of getting everything back on track to where it used to be.
I remember when it all happened, I was testing a go-kart in Sacramento, California, and I didn't -- it's like you hear about it and you don't really understand how big of a thing it is until the next couple of days kind of went on, and you really figured out, this is a big deal and this is going to really put a lot of damage on our country. So it's a good step in the right direction hopefully.
Q. When you first got to Darlington, what did you think about the track, and when you first got on it and how did you handle it and how did you figure things out there?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Well, my first time was before they repaved it and honestly I walked in the place and looked at it and I thought somebody just completely messed up on the design. It's an insane racetrack. For how narrow it is and how fast we are around there, it's unbelievable.
And I remember them telling me, just like everybody even when I was a rookie that 'you're going to hit the wall when you get there,' but I didn't understand like what it meant to hit the wall every lap. And that was -- it was tough to do. But it was weird because as tough as the place was, it was one of my -- at that point in 2007, it was one of my best qualifying efforts and we actually had a racing a solid race until I blew the tire out.
It's an insane place. I love it. I love the history behind it. I love everything about it. We just need to have a good run there so I don't leave the place hating it. I always go there loving it. I usually leave hating it. So we are going to try a different thing this time.
Q. Just like you said, what's going to be the key to get -- to have a better finish this week? What are you guys working on and what's the key thing to have a better run this weekend?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, it's obviously tough for me because since they repaved it over the couple of years, we haven't really had any good runs. And we just -- because of that, I don't know what I need around that racetrack to be really fast. Last year we really struggled with being loose, and because of that I used more brakes than I expected and that overheated the brakes and that's what exploded the brake rotor and I had that big wreck.
We just have to have a solid day's package when we get there. The good thing is all of the Fords have been fast this year, and a lot our Fords were fast there last year. So we have some notes to go off.
I feel like we know kind of where we went wrong last year and we are going to do stuff setup-wise to go away from that. But honestly, not sure we can get there; not sure I'm a lot more confident going into Darlington this year than I did at this point last year.
Q. Any driver, maybe now, that you lean on for any advice when you're racing there?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, Carl and those guys are fast. I try to talk to those guys to see if I can help.
Mark Martin has always been just really nice to me, especially the last few weeks. Ever since I got to NASCAR, he's been probably the guy that he's come up to me the most, especially when I was struggling early on in my career in 2007, telling me I was doing a good job.
So I've always just had a huge amount respect for Mark Martin and everything he's accomplished and how kind he's been to me. Especially this year, we seems like we have been next to each other or waiting in the garage next to each other.
So I try to ask him as many questions as I can, because he's been around for a while obviously and he's never lied to me, so I can just go it up to him and ask him a question and I know he's going to tell me straight up.
Q. You had the ability to drive on the track before it was repaved; how was it when it got repaved, and as it's gone over three years, has it lost a little bit of grip since it's been repaved?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: You know, I really liked it when it was not paved, and you were sliding around and that was a lot of fun to me. I feel like these cars -- I'm are better on racetracks that get slicker and you slide around a little bit more. I enjoy that a little bit more.
But since it's been repaved, it's just fast. I mean, it is so fast. It's unbelievable. One and two, to me, is insane how quick it feels, especially in a qualifying run. It is just is crazy fast for narrow the racetrack is, and to me that's the best way to describe it. The whole racetrack is fast.
But the last couple of years, it has not lost a ton of grip. I mean, it's lost a little bit of grip from the first time they repaved it, but I felt like over the couple of years that went on, like the track would get a lot slicker than it has gotten. So there's still a ton of grip there.
Q. And as far as the bumps go, do you often get a sense that the bumps may be starting to come back a little bit, or are they still fairly smooth laps?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: The bumps in the three, I remember that was a big deal for me before it was repaved. It's coming back a little bit but it still seems pretty glass smooth. Unless the track got hit really hard by the winter, I don't see it being a ton rougher than it has been.
Q. You may be sneaking in the points, an under the radar kind of thing, but you're there. Do you feel like your team is under the radar, or do you feel like you're on plan?
I've got to work on how we have got to pace these races and just kind of get on with the flow and things like that.
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, to me, we are still not a solid Top-10 team yet. And we definitely have got work to do there.
There are certain areas where we have got to work on. I spoke before about the mile-and-a-half and two-mile racetracks, we have to be better throughout the whole race. There are certain areas we have to work on.
I'll be the first one to step up and say, I've got to work on how we have got to pace these races and just kind of get on with the flow and things like that.
So there's areas we all have to work on on this race team. So the way I look at it is that we are 11th in points, and if you call it under the radar, I'm okay with that. Because we still need to be better to be considered one of those teams that are up there every week fighting to be in the Top-10 to be in contention to win races.
Do I think we have the potential to get there? Definitely. But are we there yet? Not yet. But I look at it as going into the All-Star Break that if we are at least in contention of the Chase, we are inside that 20-, 30-point bracket to where we are contending for the Chase spot, we can move on to the second half of the season and keep trying to get better, I would be happy.
So if we can have two solid breaks here, I think first goal can be accomplished, and we can look forward to the rest of the season.
Q. As far as Darlington, you mentioned pacing. Is it tougher to pace yourself at Darlington where maybe you've got like another competitor to the wall?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I think the biggest deal is, it's just so fast and it's so narrow, it's not really about pacing yourself, but you hear that saying where you've got to race the racetrack. And before it was because the tires would go off and you just basically can only go as fast as you can go, and if guys were faster, then so be it.
But now it's a little bit different because it's not so much about your tires going off because the tires stay on pretty good. It's just about not making any mistakes and hitting the wall. And you know you're going to scuff the wall, but you can't take that one hard hit where it knocks something in the rear out. You just have to be smart. It's 500 miles of that, of just kind of white knuckle, just trying to be smooth, stay off the wall as much as you can and one little mistake will cost you. So it's tough to pace the whole race there.
Q. Really what I want to know about is how you have patience to develop your program when the competition is so, so tough. To know that it's ratcheted up, and how much do you think it's ratcheted up this year?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: I mean, you just have to be patient. You know me, you've spoke to me a lot. I'm not the most patient person in the world.
So you know, I definitely -- that's an area I need to get better in is being patient. But it's just, you've just got to keep fighting hard. And the team -- that is probably the best quality that this whole organization has in RPM is the fact that they just keep fighting hard.
And at times in turmoil like in Vienna last year, to be fighting hard and be at the racetrack and running well; this year, although the program is getting better, it still has to catch up to Hendricks. At Roush, although we share a lot of info, we still have to catch up experience-wise. And in the meantime, bringing in new sponsors, like we had Nautica on the car this weekend, which was really cool to get them in NASCAR for the first time and had a lot of fun with them.
With all that said, you just, it's part of the job. That's what you have to do. And for me, the biggest thing was -- and you take guys like Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, that even when they are having a bad race, they don't do anything else to hurt themselves. And they take a bad race and they just get a decent result out of it, 15th, 16th place finish to where they are running 25th all day.
So that's the kind of mind-set I've had this year. If it's a bad race, you can get frustrated, keep working on it, but don't do anything to hurt yourself and that's what we have done. And obviously that's where we are 11th in points.
Q. Can you gauge how much the competition has jumped up this year?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Listening to everybody on the radio throughout a race, it is tough out there. And it is the hardest sport, hardest racing organization series I got into in '07 I had ever experienced and it seems like every year it just gets harder and harder.
Honestly it's because the competition gets higher. The sponsor money isn't as spread as wide, so everybody is fighting to get that sponsorship money and they know that they are fighting for jobs. There are not as many quality rides out there. I think you see the top 25, top 27 guys, everybody is in a quality ride now and it's not that spread out.
So you get those groups of guys trying to race for the same space, man, it's tough. It's fun to be a part of, though. To be in a series and to know how tough it is every week and to be on your game is an exciting thing as a driver.
Q. You talked about you wanted to be within striking distance of the Chase guys by the All-Star Break. Curious if you thought that it was important that you are one of the Chase guys that as far as confidence; if at the All-Star Break you are 20 or 30 points out, the fact that you have been there recently, do you feel like that adds confidence to your guys, that you can actually get there?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Yeah, I think with each race that we run well at, it builds confidence. It builds confidence in myself, especially after last weekend to finish seventh and take a race that we were maybe a 15th, 16th place car throughout the race and keep fighting and work hard to get a seventh out of it was real confidence-building for everybody.
So yeah, if we can just stay in it striking distance, and that's all you can do ask, is just stay in striking distance. I feel like we have some really good tracks coming up. Darlington is going to be a big question mark. We are going to have to work there to try to get a Top-10, Top-12 finish out of it.
But we have Dover and we are going to have is Loudon coming up and places like that. Charlotte, we have to get a little better at. I look at the schedule, Pocono, we have been good at. So there are some races on the schedule coming up that we can run really well at and we have to take advantage of. But to do that, you have to be in striking distance.
Everybody at the shop right now, it's a quiet confidence. We are getting there, but I'll be the first one to say we are not there yet, and everybody knows that. So it's not like we are content or in the Chase right now and we are good. We know we have to be a lot better and we have to keep getting a lot better to stay there throughout the rest of season. So I kind of see that's what the mood is.
...we have to keep getting a lot better to stay there throughout the rest of season.
Q. And you're going to be going to Kentucky in a few months, and I know you've never raced there. Curious if you have any experience there and if you feel like you'll be at any disadvantage against guys who have race Nationwide and Truck events there.
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: It might be a little bit of a disadvantage, but I've tested there a lot when I first came into the sport. But I didn't have a great experience the first time testing, I backed into the turn three wall. I remember that was not really exciting. It was like my third day in the car, and I was like, you tell me, I don't know what the heck I'm doing out here right now.
It's an interesting place, but you know what's cool is most the Nationwide races the last couple of years there, it gets a huge crowd for the Nationwide race. Obviously with Cup coming there, it's going to be a huge spectacle that they haven't seen before, to have everybody in Cup there. I'm really looking forward to that race just that reason, knowing how big the crowd has been the past couple of years for the Nationwide race and how big it should be for the Cup race.
Q. Darlington is kind of an animal into itself, but is there anything in your open-wheel experience on tracks that even remotely similar to gets you prepared in a way for that?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: Not really. I mean, if you take places like Dover or Bristol and Darlington, they are insane. There's nothing really that I can compare to.
Obviously when I was in Champ Car and in open-wheel in general, I was mostly racing on street and road courses. But to have big cars like this on a place like, you know, I was like, Dale (ph) tells me is built for 135 miles per hour and we are running 180. It's insane but it's fun.
I just love the history of the racetrack and that is what excites me about NASCAR in general, and obviously the car that I get to drive every weekend; the of the sport, how much it means to it. It's fun to go there and experience that. Every year we are driving in the place, it kind of pumps me up and sends chills down my body a little bit, knowing the history of the place and what it would mean to actually go out there and the race.
Q. Wanted to ask you a New Hampshire question. That track is of course not going to be hosting the Chase opener this year, which is going to Chicago. In your opinion, does New Hampshire's Chase race lose any of its luster or any of its excitement because it's now just a race in the Chase versus being the first race?
A.J. ALLMENDINGER: No, I don't think so. I might be biased in general. I love racing and I love the Sprint Cup Series. To me every race has got its own kind of excitement level and it's not just another race. I mean, the sport is so hard and I try to survive every year. There was times that I was just happy to make a race, so I'm still excited to go to the racetrack, wherever it may be, and get out there and be able to get in the race car and be excited about it.
It may not be the first race any more, but who knows, at that point, showing up to Loudon, there could be eight guys within two points, three points of each other, and because of that, it will make the race even more exciting than just starting it.
It's part of the Chase still and it's our playoff system and that is what makes it exciting. So to me, it doesn't lose any luster off the race. I just hope I'm a part of it and get to be there and get to be a guy in the Chase and fight for one of those spots.
THE MODERATOR: A.J., thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it today and best of luck at Darlington this weekend.