Last year, following the team's merger with Yates Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports conclusively established its faith in A.J. Allmendinger by electing to keep him over Reed Sorenson. In 2010, Allmendinger figures to pay back RPM handsomely while driving the team's famous No. 43. It's a welcome bit of a security for a budding star who has often found himself on the fringe of teams' plans.
The RPM/Yates deal brought Paul Menard and his full sponsorship into the organization, forcing RPM to shed one driver to reach the NASCAR-mandated maximum of four Sprint Cup teams. Chase driver Kasey Kahne was, of course, a lock. Elliott Sadler was under contract for 2010 and made his intent to pursue legal action clear when the team tried to dump him prior to the 2009 season. Plus, he was having a decent year.
Sorenson, age 23 and in his fourth full Cup season, had been hired by RPM prior to the 2009 season for his star potential. But Allmendinger, after a terrible start in a direct transition from Champ Car to Sprint Cup, had started to show he had the talent to succeed in Cup, too. His superior performance last year, the first Cup season in which he made all 36 races, earned him the job over Sorenson.
Allmendinger finished 24th in points last season, just ahead of Sadler (26th) and Sorenson (29th). He also finished a career-best third in the Daytona 500, produced five more top 10 results and only one DNF.
It's been an arduous journey for Allmendinger, who had no stock car experience when Red Bull lured him from Champ Car in September, 2006, where he'd won five races that season and championships in the development Toyota Atlantic and Barber Dodge Pro Series.
A new team with a new manufacturer (Toyota), Red Bull was a place for a veteran, not a rookie -- and particularly not a rookie without stock car experience. It didn't have points entering Cup in 2007, either, meaning Allmendinger had to qualify on time the entire season. He made 17 races.
The next season opened with Allmendinger failing to qualify for Daytona, getting rained out of qualifying at the Auto Club Speedway in California and failing to make Las Vegas. Desperate, Red Bull took Allmendinger out of the car and put veteran Mike Skinner in for five races. Skinner also tested and coached Allmendinger, who returned for the ninth race of the season at Talladega.
Then, all of a sudden, Allmendinger figured out how to drive in the toughest stock car series in the world. He finished 10th at Indianapolis, 11th at Watkins Glen, 12th at Pocono, 13th at Chicagoland and 14th at the Auto Club Speedway.
But Red Bull wasn't impressed. After Allmendinger finished a then-career best ninth at Kansas, the team released him to promote Scott Speed from the Camping World Truck Series.
Allmendinger wasn't unemployed long. He missed one race and did one race for Michael Waltrip Racing before Gillett Evernham hired him for the final five. Allmendinger, now driving Dodges, finished 11th at Homestead, 14th at Atlanta, 15th at Martinsville and 16th at Pocono.
Then GEM merged with Petty Enterprises to form RPM. The team committed to running eight races with Allmendinger to start the 2009 season and his third at Daytona energized RPM to find support for the rest of the season.
RPM's merger with Yates brought a switch from Dodge to Ford and an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing. Allmendinger drove Fords in the final three races last year and finished 10th at Texas and Homestead.
"I think the last few races last year being in a Ford was real exciting for me, and obviously you could just see right from the beginning how it just boosted, how fast our team was and how much better we were getting each weekend," Allmendinger said. "That was something going into the offseason -- (crew chief) Mike Shiplett and I and everybody on the 43 team and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports -- we could really build on and be excited about."
Juan Pablo Montoya set the standard for open-wheel drivers making the direct transition to Cup by making the Chase and finishing eighth last season, his third in the series. Allmendinger arrived to Cup at the same time as Montoya, but he missed 28 races in his first two seasons. By the number of races, this will be Allmendinger's third full season in Cup. If Ford, through Roush Fenway, makes the competitive jump everybody expects, Allmendinger should be a Chase contender. He might even make it to the same standard set by Montoya -- a world class talent.