Thursday, December 22, 2011

Deuces Wild: Dinger deserves the double deuce

Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
“I just want to win! I don’t care which race it is. Everything I get into I won then this whole NASCAR thing, it’s quite hard! It feels like every week you get kicked in the stomach, you feel like you are getting in and getting on a roll and then you have a couple of bad weeks and start all over again.” – A.J. Allmendinger in a July 2011 interview with Skirts and Scuffs.

On Wednesday A.J. Allmendinger, a California native with a background in open-wheel racing, made a career move that could put him in victory lane in a matter of months. Signing a deal with Penske Racing to fill the seat vacated by Kurt Busch, Allmendinger looks to capture that elusive first win under the guidance of long-time owner Roger Penske.

When the announcement came earlier in the month that Busch, who had been with the team since 2006, would no longer be the driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge, speculation began with everyone taking bets on who would fill the seat. Although many believed David Ragan would be the replacement driver, others suggested that David Reutimann or Brian Vickers be given a chance. Ragan, the other front runner for the job, has had five years behind the wheel of  top-tier equipment but has only one win to his name. Would a change in atmosphere really make all that much difference for Ragan? While each driver has merits and could easily have been chosen for one reason or another, the decision to hire Allmendinger is one that makes sense from both a business and racing perspective.

Tim Cendric, President of Penske Racing, said in regards to choosing Allmendinger above the other candidates, "If you look at it, there's nobody there that has a better progression through his career. When you look at the slope of the curve there with the way his statistics are, certainly no one has that type of, I guess, slope if you want to call it that. And obviously we had to sit down and see if he was a good fit for our organization. You can only do so much of that over the phone and in meetings in a short period of time. But really you have to go with your gut and you have to go with what you think will create the right chemistry internally."

Allmendinger has showed in his five seasons of racing that he has the potential to be a star. Although he’s never won a race, the former Red Bull Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports driver has improved each year where the other drivers Penske considered have not. Most recently chosen to drive the iconic No. 43, Allmendinger earned 10 top-10 finishes in 2011 and finished a career-best 15th in the standings. One might argue that his lack of wins should preclude him from the spot at Penske, but when you consider the equipment Allmendinger has had to work with in his short career it’s not really all that surprising he’s never been to victory lane.

During Wednesday’s press conference Allmendinger remarked on the differences he’s seen at the Penske shop in just a few visits saying, “where I'm at and the level of my career, it's do or die. This is the next step to try to be one of those top Sprint Cup drivers, and that's what I want to do. I feel like this is going to be the best place to do it, and just the way this organization is laid out is absolutely amazing. I'm excited. Walking through the shop for the first time and looking at some of the cars and meeting some of the people, just how positive everybody is at this race team is something that is‑‑ just makes me feel good showing up to it.”

We will never know if Ragan would have done better in the No. 22 than in the No. 6. Only time will tell where his career will go, but for those cheering on A.J. Allmendinger, it’s time to start pouring that Pennzoil into your engine and buying your fuel from Shell. Perhaps A.J. will be the next first-time winner. Perhaps he will find that behind the wheel of the Double Deuce he feels more at home than he ever has before. And perhaps he and teammate Brad Keselowski will make 2012 a season we will never forget. All I know is that come February the deuces will indeed be wild and Allmendinger will get his chance to prove once and for all that he’s not just another open-wheel crossover that will never make a mark in stock cars.

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