Sunday, June 23, 2013

AJ Allmendinger's Nationwide victory at Road America bigger than the race

Credit: John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images
"We're going to win the race but it's going to take all day to do it. You just have to patient and let it come to you." Jeremy Bullins, crew chief No. 22 

Sometimes the story behind the race is bigger than the story of the race.

Like in the 2001 Pepsi 400 where Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first race back at the track which claimed his father's life.

Like Ernie Irvan's first win after taking over the No. 28 Havoline Ford that had been Davey Allison's.

Or like Irvan's 1997 victory at Michigan three years after a crash during practice at that track nearly killed him.

The Nationwide Series Johnsonville Sausage 200 at Road America was one of those races.

Not to the same degree as those examples, of course, since no one had died along the way. Unless you count AJ Allmendinger's career, which was pronounced dead by many after his incomprehensible lapse in judgement that led to his indefinite suspension from NASCAR because of a failed drug test.

But unlike Jeremy Mayfield, the poster child for how not to handle a failed drug test, AJ took full responsibility for his actions, took all the right steps to return to the sport he loves and took every opportunity to prove to Roger Penske that the Captain's faith in him was not misplaced.

And Saturday he took home the trophy from Road America. His first NASCAR win in his first race in a Nationwide car since 2008 came at the same track where he scored his last solo win. AJ and his Michael Shank Racing teammates won the 2012 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, but beyond that, AJ last visited victory lane in 2006 right there at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in the Champ Car Series.

The Dinger started from the pole and clearly had the dominant car, but with road-course specialists such as Owen Kelly and Billy Johnson, and talented series regulars such as Justin Allgaier and Parker Kligerman, who finished second and third respectively, the win was never a given.

Billy Johnson bumps past AJ Allmendinger to take the lead.
Credit: Tyler Barrick/Getty Images
In fact, on Lap 7 AJ took a corner too hot and lost the lead to GrandAm racer Billy Johnson, but even that worked to Allmendinger's advantage.

"I made a mistake early in the race which was actually to my benefit," Allmendinger said in victory lane. "It allowed me to get behind a couple of guys and see where I was stronger and where I was probably over-driving a little bit and once I figured that out, this thing was a rocket ship."

Near the end of the race, on Lap 40, Johnson bumped past Dinger to take the lead. AJ told his team that he would pay back the No. 16 (Johnson) and within two laps, AJ pulled up behind Johnson and skillfully moved him over and cleanly claimed the spot and went on to pass Allgaier for the lead. From there it was simply him vs. fuel mileage through the two green-white-checkered finishes.

In victory he gained a measure of redemption and a serving of affirmation bigger than the race itself.

In his post-race interview, AJ spoke about how much Roger Penske's support meant to him and how badly he wanted to win for Roger.

"Anyone who's been to his shop -  this huge race shop that he's got between the Indy cars and the sports cars and all the NASCAR stuff. When he wins, he's got the posters up of each win. I've walked through that place for a year now…and I'd like to have a lot of them, but I just wanted one. I thought the Indy 500 one was going to be pretty cool, but that wasn't meant to be, but I just wanted one of those posters in there at least. I want to show that I was a small part of this race team who did something for Roger and it's cool to have that now," said Allmendinger.

Overall the race held all the excitement that fans have come to expect from road courses. Allgaier and Kligerman raced hard but in the end just didn't have enough for the No. 22.

"This is a little bit of redemption when we were leading on the last lap a couple of years ago," said Allgaier, referring to when he ran out of gas while leading on the last lap of the race in 2011. But he was quick to admit, "I would say that at the end of the race, the best car won."

Kligerman's cool box shorted out early in the race and he both got knocked around and did some punting of his own.

"With all the damage we had on the front end from moving cars out of the way to get up to the front, we probably hurt ourselves in terms of raw speed," said Kligerman. "But we were able to hold of Vickers for third, so that's all that matters."

Fourth-place finisher Owen Kelly might have been more a challenge but he ran out of fuel on Lap 30 and stopped in Turn 9. The No. 54 Monster team hadn't gotten the car quite full and their driver, a veteran of V8 Supercars, had to work his way back to the front. Kelly drove in the tradition of the Monster car, not shy about punting other cars off the track.

Penske regular Sam Hornish Jr. managed a fifth-place finish.

The Johnsonville Sausage 200 featured 11 lead changes among seven drivers, with Allmendinger leading the most laps.

Eight cautions slowed the pace for 16 laps and featured two attempts at a green-white-checkered finish.
Laps: 5: No. 18 stopped on track Turn 6
Laps: 16-18: No. 53 stopped on track
Laps 31-33: No. 54 stalled off track Turn 9
Lap 39: No. 21, 32 spin Turn 12
Laps 41-42: Debris front stretch
Laps 46-47: No. 51 into tire barrier Turn 7
Laps 49-50: No. 26 stopped on track Turn 6
Laps 52-53: No. 43 spin Turn 7

Series points leader Regan Smith had a rough day and saw his points lead cut to 28 because of his 32nd place finish. He held his own until the last few laps but ended up getting dumped. Allgaier's second place put him in front of Sam Hornish Jr., despite the latter's fifth-place finish.

"Road racing takes no driving ability, it just takes slamming ability," said Smith.

For the full finishing order click here

For the full points standings click here.




Janine, aka Lisa or LJ, Cloud, a fifth-generation Texan, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track.

She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, going from contributor to media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and IZOD IndyCar. Janine considers it a privilege to represent the site at the track and to share with readers the excitement of the world of motorsports.

0 comments :

Post a Comment