This Week in Ford Racing
AJ Allmendinger, driver of the No. 43 Best Buy Ford Fusion, comes off an 11th place finish last weekend in Michigan which moved him into the top-15 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings. With just three races left before the Chase field is set, Allmendinger talked about what he needs to do down the stretch, how he will attack the Bristol short track and what things have been like with new crew chief Greg Erwin.
HOW HAS THE TRANSITION GONE TO YOUR NEW CREW CHIEF GREG ERWIN? “I think it has been pretty good. We’ve kind of had two out of four weeks that were really good and the others were a little bit of a struggle, but I think you are going to have that when you are working together for the first time. Honestly, I think it has been really good and I enjoy working with Greg. He has the experience and he has race wins under his belt and has confidence in himself and what we need to do with the race cars. It is helping me and I feel like, take last week for instance, we struggled all weekend really. We weren’t very good all weekend and we weren’t very good in the race. He made a good call at the end for four tires and we end up with an eleventh place finish. That is a something we probably shouldn’t have gotten. It is things like that. There is a lot of room on things we need to improve on, but I feel like as the weekend goes on we feel like we are making progress and at least changing the race car and doing things that we are learning from. Because of that it has been enjoyable. I really enjoy working with him and I really do look forward to the rest of the season to try to keep going and keep learning with him and hopefully keep getting stronger.”
FROM A DRIVERS PERSPECTIVE, ARE YOU WILLING TO TAKE SOME CHANCES IN THESE FINAL THREE RACES TO TRY TO MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN AND GRAB A WIN FOR A WILD CARD CHANCE? “Not really. Obviously we are in position now where if we were to get a win I think we would be right in there or if not put ourselves in. At the same time though the way I look at it is that we just have to get better as a team. If we steal a win and get in the Chase and run 10 races and don’t run very well then there is really no point of being in the Chase, it is just a wasted spot. I look at it like we need to keep getting better every weekend and be a consistent top-10 race team, then a top-five and then have a chance at victories. Greg has the experience to know that if you put yourself in the position good things can happen. If there are 10 to go on a restart and you are inside the top three or four and there is a chance to get a win, then maybe we get more aggressive or take a chance on fuel mileage or strategy, but I don’t really look at that right now. I look at just trying to get better as a race team. We are 15th in points and even from the bad weekend we were able to make ground up on the people we were racing around. Our goal every weekend is to go out there and win, but I am also trying to take things step-by-step and get better as a race team and as a driver and be more consistent. I know when that happens, the wins will come. I don’t want to just be that guy that wins one race in his career. I want to be a multiple race winner and be a guy whose name is brought up every weekend when they talk about guys that can win. To do that we have to become more consistent and get our race cars a little better overall. That is the process I am going by.”
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO THIS WEEKEND AT BRISTOL IN ORDER TO RUN BETTER THAN YOU HAVE IN THE PAST AND MAYBE PUT YOURSELF IN POSITION TO TAKE A CHANCE? “I really do love the Bristol night race. Honestly, I think it is the coolest race on the NASCAR calendar. You get everybody stacked in there with the crowd and it is a night race. It has that Saturday night short track feel except there are 150,000 people in the grandstands watching. To me it is a fun race to go to but our stats aren’t very good there in the past. It has been a place that over the last couple years I have lost some confidence in figuring out how to get around that place. I have watched a lot of in-car camera and talked to Greg a lot about what we need. I have studied how these guys that do well there get around there well and how they keep themselves in the ballgame all race. There is a lot of luck and patience that goes into it. I think I look at is as we are just trying to go out there and run all 500 laps. That is my goal. I want to go out there and be smart. Hopefully we can unload off the truck and be good from the start and run all 500 laps. I feel like if you do that, if you run all 500 laps, you can finish top-15 if not better. That is the mindset I am going with. I was just joking about it today. I think one time out of seven or eight times that I have raced there I have actually finished all the laps. So that is my first goal. As that goes on we will see how the rest of it goes, but that is definitely our first goal, to finish all the laps.”
DO YOU ANTICIPATE WHAT WAS ALREADY A PRETTY INTENSE RACE BEING EVEN MORESO THIS YEAR WITH ALL THE GUYS FIGHTING FOR CHASE CONTENTION? “I think so. I think Bristol is always a place where you see a lot of paybacks from drivers that are mad at each other. You will see a lot of desperation. The way this new format is there, and the way the points have worked out this year with everyone being so tight, there are still a legitimate six to eight guys that can make that wild card. There are also a lot of legitimate fast guys that can win a race in the next three. Bristol is a place that is a tight course and people are going to really start taking chances. Desperation is probably the best word. I think that will start to set in and people will be doing everything they can. That is the mindset that I have to try to get away from and take things as they come. I think that is the biggest thing that has happened to me over the years at Bristol. I think I have forced the issue when our car wasn’t good. With people being desperate around us, I am going to have the mindset to just be patient and run our laps and hopefully that will put us in a good position.”
DID YOU PICK YOUR INTRO SONG YET FOR SATURDAY NIGHT? “Yeah, I went with some old school. I picked Disturbed’s ‘Down with the Sickness’.”
Greg Erwin, crew chief for the No. 43 Best Buy Ford Fusion of AJ Allmendinger, made the move from Roush Fenway Racing to Richard Petty Motorsports prior to the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Now with four races under his belt calling shots for the iconic car, Erwin took time with Ford Racing to talk about the transition, what he expects this weekend in Bristol and how much of a gambling man he and the Dinger might be in the final three races before the Chase.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES FOR YOU HEADING INTO BRISTOL AND WHAT ARE YOU FOCUSING ON FOR THE NIGHT RACE THIS WEEKEND? “The biggest challenge for me as crew chief with AJ is going to a place that he is not very comfortable at and he doesn’t have a real good feel for. Coming off about eight trips there with Biffle with fairly similar set-ups every time and some very good results, not having a real good idea what AJ is looking for in a feel. We are not going to force one driver’s set-up on AJ. We are going to let him kind of find his way around that race track and try to give him a feel that he is looking for because that place is a lot about the driver feel and trying to keep the car turning. What I want to make sure of is that I don’t put him in a box and make him run a set-up that is not to his liking necessarily or not the feel he is looking for. We are going to do some experimentation early Friday, us and the No. 9 guys are going to work on a couple things together as a company. Hopefully, we will look for a direction going into that final practice.”
MARCOS AMBROSE HAS DONE PRETTY WELL AT BRISTOL. HOW MUCH WILL YOU LEAN ON THAT TEAM AND HOW MUCH DO YOU THINK AJ MIGHT LEAN ON MARCOS TO GET SOME POINTERS? “Pointers are pretty important. I have some in car video of a few different drivers and I have some copies of in car videos, one of Greg’s (Biffle) and a couple others that I consider top-10 drivers there. I made some copies of those yesterday for AJ to take home and take a look at. Marcos has done very well there and he has been in good equipment there over the years. To be completely honest, I haven’t really gotten to look into any set-up information that he may have, but I know what he ran in the spring. Phil Surgeon and I are sitting here right now actually and are looking at the last two or three events worth of set-ups. I think the spring event is a little bit of an outlier in that the tire change they threw us toward the end of practice really threw everybody off. I think the results of the spring race were not necessarily indicative of what you will see this time around.”
TIRES HAVE BEEN A HOT BUTTON ISSUE. GUYS HAVE SAID THAT TIRE PACKAGES HAVE THROWN TEAMS FOR A LOOP THIS YEAR. AS A CREW CHIEF, WHAT HAVE YOU NOTICED WITH THE TIRE PACKAGES THIS YEAR AND TO YOU AGREE WITH THOSE ASSESMENTS? “I agree 100-percent that it is a crap shoot. It feels like a crap shoot every week and more so this year than historically. We know that when we go to some of these race tracks for the second time in the season that they have weathered and aged and we know a lot of times it might be a little warmer or a little colder, depending on where we are. It almost feels like every time we show up to the race track if we brought exactly the same stuff we had in the race car three months of four months before that is feels like we are starting over every week.”
WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES OR SUPRISES IN YOUR TRANSITION TO RPM AND THE 43 TEAM? “The biggest challenge is the names of all the guys on the 43 crew. I am over that now. It has been three or four weeks but for the first couple of weeks trying to remember all the guys in the shop and pit crew was a challenge. I have tried to adapt myself into a system that was already working and not wanting to come in and completely just turn everybody’s world upside down and cause a big distraction and set back at this point in the season. AJ is in line for a career best points finish and I think he has opened a lot of eyes this year. Certainly Mike Shiplett had gotten the thing as far as it was and that is a shout-out to him. One of the positives with AJ is that he has no preconceived notions of what things should do or how his car should necessarily drive. His effort in paying attention to what we are doing and really trying to give me as much feedback as he can give me, constructive feedback, has been tremendous. It has been every bit of all I could ask for. Probably the weakness with AJ right now is, again, he has no preconceived notions of what he should be feeling. Sometimes he struggles a little bit trying to tell me if we need to tighten the car up to go faster or if we need to free the car up to go faster. From a balance standpoint it kind of leaves it up to me to sort of take a look at the lap times and the way the car is driving and adjust from there. It is obvious that his strength is also his weakness right now. More experience, more time behind the wheel in competitive cars and not so much back there running 25th and 30th, but time around those guys that can run near the top-10 every week is going to be critical to his development. He is working really hard on the finer things in life we don’t all see from the television every week. Things like making time getting on pit road, getting the car in the box, getting the car stopped where the pit crew can get their job done in a competitive amount of time and then leaving the box a lot harder. All of that is going to show up in the way his car cycles out after green flag pit stops. He was a little weak at that but he is working really hard on that right now.”
WITH A COUPLE RACES LEFT BEFORE THE CHASE, ARE YOU WILLING TO TAKE CHANCES TO TRY TO STEAL A WIN? DOES YOUR MINDSET CHANGE AT ALL THESE LAST THREE RACES? “AJ has to get a win to get into the Chase and I don’t necessarily know that it is going to take two. It depends on how it works with Brad Keselowski and the 2 car. To finish 15th in the points or 13th in the points or 14th in the points is irrelevant. If you can get a ‘W’ right now we know that is the only realistic way he has a shot at getting in. We would go for the win and roll the dice. The problem we have there would be if we were going to be a little short as far as stretching fuel mileage or anything like that. That would be difficult for us. If you are asking me if we are going to run these last three races before the Chase to win, then I am going to tell you absolutely.”