AJ Allmendinger hasn’t spent the last two-plus seasons trying to prove himself on NASCAR’s top circuit to bail out now.
Sure, having to race his way onto the grid week after week can get tiring. Yes, it’s difficult living on Sprint Cup’s perpetual bubble.
Yet there’s no place the 27-year-old would rather be. Not Formula One. Not IndyCar. Give the affable California kid a decent Cup car and he’ll take his chances.
“I believe that this is the toughest racing series in the world,” he said. “I haven’t worked this hard for two years to go out there and give up on it.”
Maybe, but he might not have a choice.
The driver of the No. 44 Dodge for Richard Petty Motorsports heads to Las Vegas this week a solid 13th in points but still in search for a sponsor with deep enough pockets to pick his team up for a full season.
“Ultimately, yeah, we’d like to have that $15 million sponsorship that gets us through the whole season,” he said. “But if we can just piece together race by race and keep having good finishes, I’m confident that we’re going to get a couple of companies to step up.”
The window is closing. Allmendinger signed an eight-race deal with revamped RPM – a hybrid of Gillett Evernham and Petty Enterprises – following a tumultuous off-season when he appeared poised to inherit Elliott Sadler’s ride in the No. 19 car before team officials backed off and let Sadler keep his job.
By the time the deal fell through, all the former Red Bull Racing regular had left was the part-time gig in the No. 44. He made the field for the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying race then backed it up with a third-place finish in the rain-shortened event.
Allmendinger came back to earth last week in California, stumbling to 29th thanks to a pit violation. He heads to Las Vegas this week hoping to make the race, something he failed to do in each of the last two years while driving Red Bull Racing’s No. 84 Toyota.
When Allmendinger failed to make the field in Las Vegas last spring, Red Bull ended up taking him out of the car for more than a month in favor of Mike Skinner. It was a cold splash of reality and perhaps the first sign that he wasn’t in Red Bull’s long-term plans.
“At first it was really difficult,” Allmendinger said. “As a driver you never really want to be taken out of your ride. You don’t want to lose your job over that, and that was tough at first.”
Skinner, however, stressed to Allmendinger that it wasn’t personal. If anything, the longtime NASCAR veteran reinforced Allmendinger’s confidence.
“The first thing he said to me when he got out of the race car the first time driving it was, ‘Well, it’s not you. I can tell you that. It’s the team. They need to work on things,’ ”Allmendinger said. “That’s not taking anything away from me. I feel like I always need to keep improving. But it just made it a lot easier.”
Allmendinger got back in the seat for the spring race at Talladega, beginning a string of 21 straight starts. He put together a top-10 at Indianapolis and a season-best ninth during the fall race at Kansas.
It wasn’t good enough for Allmendinger to stay in the No. 84. Red Bull pulled him in favor of Scott Speed, and Allmendinger spent the fall doing spot duty in the No. 00 for Michael Waltrip Racing before ending the year with a five-race run in the No. 10 for Gillett Evernham.
Then came all the drama with Sadler, though Allmendinger knew it was never personal, just business. Sadler worked with Allmendinger to help him qualify for Daytona, and the two joined RPM teammate Reed Sorenson in the top 10 during the 500.
It’s heady territory for a team that didn’t exist two months ago. Learning the names of the guys on his pit crew hasn’t been easy, and Allmendinger admits there are still plenty of people back at RPM’s shop in North Carolina whom he doesn’t know. It’s something he hopes to remedy if he gets the time.
Whether he will is unclear. While there is no official fallback plan if things at RPM don’t work out, he’s hoping to have some options, including a possible ride in the Indianapolis 500.
“If nothing works out, I’d love to run Indy,” he said. “But that’s not my first goal. … (But) something I’ve learned in racing is the fact that you never say ‘No’ to anything and you leave every option that you can open.”
He’ll try and stick it out, just the way his parents did when they mortgaged their home three different times to keep their son racing.
Living weekend to weekend might not be an ideal situation. But Allmendinger knows he can’t worry about his future. There’s too much to focus on in the present.
“The thing that I can go out there and control is driving the wheels off the race car and trying to finish as high as we can every race,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to do. If I do that, hopefully everything will fall into place.”