1. A.J. Allmendinger is spending the first off week of the Sprint Cup season returning to his roots. A former two-time International Karting Federation Grand National champion, Allmendinger will take to Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C., where he'll climb into a go-kart and take on drivers nearly half his age.
"I don't know why I put myself through the punishment," he said jokingly. "I've done about three races this year and just got my [butt] handed to me by 15-year-olds. It just puts me in a worse mood, honestly."
Truth be told, there would seem little that could get Allmendinger down these days. The 29-year-old California native, who has never finished higher than 19th in the points standings, is finally coming into his own in his fifth season as a Cup driver.
Allmendinger opened the season with an 11th-place finish at Daytona and followed it by coming in ninth at Phoenix, to sit a surprising fourth in points. He dropped to ninth after a 19th-place finish at Las Vegas last weekend, but there were still positives in a disappointing day as he qualified in the top 10, left the 1.5-mile track as one of only five drivers to have completed all 787 laps run this season and kept the famed No. 43 in the top 10 in points in consecutive weeks for the first time since John Andretti in 1998.
There's a growing confidence about The Dinger. It's one that comes with having seasons under his belt, and one that comes with Richard Petty Motorsports being on solid footing.
"The stability of the team and everything like that, it helps," Allmendinger said. "The last couple of years there's been a lot of things that have come up that have made it tough to show up."
Last fall RPM seemed on the verge of closing its doors due to majority owner George Gillett's financial troubles. Cars and engines were repossessed and its marquee driver, Kasey Kahne, was released. But in November, Petty partnered with Medallion Financial Group and DGB Investments and bought Gillett's stake in RPM. The move also allowed Petty to regain control of day-to-day operations.
The team has scaled down from four cars to two. Gone are Paul Menard and Elliott Sadler, and in stepped Marcos Ambrose, from JTG Daugherty. He and Allmendinger have jelled.
"It's a good thing, and Marcos and I are working well together," Allmendinger said. "It's something that, over the last couple of years, I felt like teammate relationships we had among all the drivers were strained for various reasons. But now Marcos is a fresh start and I think we're working well together."
Despite his early success, Allmendinger isn't getting ahead of himself. With the likes of former champions Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth and Chase mainstays Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick behind him, he knows it's just a matter of time before they make a charge. "Those guys that are going to be there are going to make up those points," he said.
Still, Allmendinger doesn't think these first few weeks have been a fluke. He's shown steady improvement in his three seasons with RPM after coming over from Red Bull Racing, going from six top-10s and a 24th-place finish in the points in '09 to 19th last year with eight top 10s and his first career pole. But the major change, Allmendinger said, is he and crew chief Mike Shiplett have finally reached a breakthrough in working together.
"I think the biggest thing is, at this point last year, we were really lost," Allmendinger said. "Mike Shiplett and I would sit down and we really didn't have any answers of any direction we were going, honestly. We were pretty lost ... I think when races like [Vegas] happen now, we're able to sit down now and know where we are off a little bit and try to build from that."
His ability to move on will certainly be tested next week at Bristol, where in seven career starts he has an average finish of 30th, his worst of any Cup track. He admits he has a long way to go before he's considered a legitimate Chase threat and that begins with contending for wins -- he hasn't reached Victory Lane in 119 starts. But the driver who was pegged as the future of RPM when he signed a multiyear contract with the organization in August, believes the potential is there.
"I want to make the Chase, and that's the goal, we have the team [to do it]," he said. "We still have a lot that we have to learn as a race team. You have to run consistently in the top 10 each week and we're right on the edge of that. We still have to be better than we are right now."
Some drivers use it to deliver a message, a la Brad Keselowski's selection of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'Won't Back Down' last season. Others, like Ambrose, make it more personal -- the Australian went with Men at Work's 'Land Down Under.' But above all, you want it to have a touch of individuality, unlike last year when five drivers picked AC/DC.
Consider it a window into the soul for the 160,000 in attendance. No pressure, right?
Allmendinger, who last year selected Papa Roach's 'Last Resort,' opened about his process and unveiled what he'll be using for the March 20th driver introductions.
"I like a little bit of rap, some hip-hop, but I'm more of a hard-alternative rock [guy]," Allmendinger said. "It makes it kind of tough; either the song starts out really heavy and there aren't a lot of words to it, or there's some curse words and I don't think Bristol will let me play most of those. I went with Flo Rida, it starts off '5, 4, 3, 2, 1' and it's got a good beat to it. I wanted to pick something different that nobody is going to play, so I might be the only guy with Flo Rida. That will be interesting; we'll see what kind of response I get."
"I was going to go with 50 Center 'Baby By Me,' but my wife said no to that. She said that wasn't allowed."