Mark Story

Mark Story: Allmendinger ready for breakthrough Cup victory

SPARTA — With a big smile, A.J. Allmendinger delivered a message for his punching and wrecking Sprint Cup rivals Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch:

Boys, keep at it.

"I think it's awesome," Allmendinger said of the late-race wreck and post-race confrontation between NASCAR stars Busch and Harvick at Saturday's Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. "As long as they keep running into each other and punching each other out, that makes it a lot easier on the rest of us."

Exactly 59 days before the Quaker State 400 inaugurates Kentucky Speedway as a Sprint Cup track, Allmendinger spent Wednesday here as part of the announcement that Ford and the Gallatin County racetrack have extended a longstanding promotional relationship.

"If somebody's got to win the first one," Allmendinger said of the initial Cup race in Sparta, "I guess it should be me. I don't see why not."

Once considered the rising American star in open-wheel racing, the 29-year-old California native is enjoying the best NASCAR season of his career in 2011 after some rocky years making the transition into stock-car racing.

Going into this weekend's race at Dover, Allmendinger and the No. 43 Best Buy Ford he drives for Richard Petty Motorsports stand 11th in the Sprint Cup standings, only eight points behind 10th-place Matt Kenseth.

Other than a 31st at Bristol, Allmendinger has been almost as consistent as the sunrise in 2011. His finishes in the other nine races so far this season have all been between seventh and 20th.

"I've struggled for five years to get where I'm at, where I'm just finally being competitive and running up front every weekend," he said.

In 2006, the Los Gatos, Calif., native won five open-wheel races competing in the old Champ Car World Series. In a racing discipline desperate for American-born stars, he was one hot item.

Yet Allmendinger made a career turn the next season and became part of Toyota's entry into NASCAR when he signed to drive in the Cup Series for Team Red Bull.

He was part of an influx of open-wheel racing standouts into NASCAR in the period, including big-name stars Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti.

"I'd sit at home when I was growing up and watch Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart drive these (stock) cars, and think 'how easy is that?'" Allmendinger said. "But you learn real quick when you try to make the transition and you get into running against these (NASCAR) guys how hard it is — and it is hard."

Of NASCAR's recent open-wheel invaders, Montoya is the most successful with two career Cup wins and a spot in the Chase in 2008.

On the other side, Franchitti lost his Cup ride because of sponsorship issues 10 races into his first season (2008) and returned to IndyCar. In three years (2008-10) in the Sprint Cup Series, Hornish Jr. could not replicate the immense success he had in the IRL and is without a full-time ride in 2011.

Allmendinger has only three Top 5s to show for 126 career Cup starts, but he has often seemed to run better than the quality of his equipment. That and determination have allowed him to stay in the Cup Series.

"You see guys like Juan, who has made it, but you see other guys like Sam and Dario, when they came over here, they struggled," Allmendinger says. "It's a tough thing to do."

Of course, the Ford Fusion Allmendinger pilots each weekend boasts a genuinely iconic car number. Back in the day, Richard Petty became synonymous with the No. 43 during an epic career that saw him win seven Cup Series championships.

"Being an open-wheel guy like I was, to say that I drive a true legendary race car and to have The King (Petty) personally come up and want me in his race car means the world to me," Allmendinger said. "The next goal, hopefully, is to get the No. 43 in victory lane. That would be cool."

The chances of returning the 43 to a Cup victory circle for the first time since 1999 are presumably boosted when stars such as Harvick and Kyle Busch take NASCAR's "boys, have at it" ethos to self-destructive lengths.

"Any time they do dumb things to make it a lot easier for the rest of us, I'm all for it," Allmendinger said. "It makes for good TV, too. I love turning on SportsCenter and seeing them fighting."

Boys, keep at it.