By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
A.J. Allmendinger had a tough road ahead of him in Sunday’s Auto Club 400. Allmendinger recorded the 11th-fastest speed in qualifying, but before the race his team noticed a issue with a rear-end gear.
“It was a good catch by our crew to see the burnt gear, from the sound of it; it wasn’t something you really notice, the detail they put into building these race cars and going over them was big. They caught it and saved our day,” Allmendinger said.
The No. 47 JTG/Daugherty team changed out the rear-end gear before the race, which meant that Allmendinger would have to relinquish the 11th spot to start from the rear of the 39-car field.
From the start of the race, Allmendinger’s car took off like a rocket ship. By the first caution on lap 26, Allmendinger had already worked his way up 20 spots to 19th.
“It was tough starting back there, but I didn’t realize I had driven through half the field so quick,” Allmendinger recalled after the race. “The car was fast.”
Under this caution, Allmendinger utilized a fast pit crew to gain four more spots. When the race went back to green, Allmendinger passed four more cars before the first lap of green flag conditions had been completed. Allmendinger now sat 11th. Just a few laps later, Allmendinger would crack the top-10, where he would settle in until he felt that he had a tire coming apart at lap 77.
Allmendinger would pit off sequence to get some fresh tires, but in doing so he dropped one lap off the pace to the 33rd position. The No. 47 team would catch a break, as the entire field would cycle through on pit stops. Allmendinger would find himself right around the top-10 again, but he would feel that his right rear tire was coming apart again on lap 102.
Allmendinger would have to pit off sequence again, but this time he wasn’t as fortunate as a caution would come out at lap 108. When the field hit pit road, Allmendinger would stay out, and as a result he took the wave around to get his lap back. Allmendinger wouldn’t have tire issues the rest of the day.
At lap 115, Allmendinger restarted 26th and he began methodically working his way back through the field. At lap 121, he narrowly missed a spinning Danica Patrick as he moved to 21st.
With less than 70 laps to go, Allmendinger worked his way back into the top-15, and he would set sail to the top-10.
While running ninth with 13 to go, Allmendinger slightly brushed the wall, but his team reported that there was no tire smoke, so the No. 47 Chevrolet stayed on track. Allmendinger began sliding back a little after touching the wall, as he sat 11th as Kyle Busch lost a tire with two laps to go. This brought out a yellow flag and gave Allmendinger a chance to regroup.
Allmendinger’s crew would fire off another good pit stop which helped him restart the overtime period in 11th. When Allmendinger crossed the finish line two laps later he was credited with the eighth-place finishing position.
After the race, Allmendinger broke down his day.
“(The car) was really good for about 20 laps on each run. The take-off speed was awesome and I don’t know I just couldn’t get the thing to last for a whole run. We just kind of struggled there at the end on each run, that kind of hurt us, but short-run speed that was a lot of fun,” Allmendinger explained. “I thought we were as competitive as anybody on short-run speed. We just needed something there for the last 10 to 15 laps. We will work on it. The pit crew was awesome. They bounced back with great stops all day.”
At the end of the day, the box score doesn’t tell you the full story. A peak at the final rundown would tell you that Allmendinger officially started 11th, and finished eighth Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. But what Allmendinger and his JTG/Daugherty Racing team did this past weekend was nothing short of incredible. Allmendinger now feels the momentum mounting.
“It’s just important this whole West Coast swing, after an okay run at Daytona, a fast car at Atlanta, but didn’t get anything out of it and then got the penalty on top of it. To come out to the West Coast go 14th, 17th and then an eighth, that might put us inside the top 16 (of the point standings) to go into Easter break,” Allmendinger said. “Big momentum for everybody here at the shop. Just keep digging.”
The Sprint Cup Series will return to action in two weeks at Martinsville Speedway. Allmendinger has three-career top-10 finishes at the half-mile track, including a second-place effort back in the spring of 2012. In the four races Allmendinger has run at Martinsville with JTG/Daugherty, he has three finishes of 11th-0r-better.
Image: Garry Eller for Chevy Racing