From Daytona through Fontana, AJ Allmendinger’s dream season had been cloudy, at best.
Kicking off a new stage of his career at Penske Racing, Allmendinger didn’t exactly fire out of the gate in the season’s opening week, leaving Daytona with a 34th-place finish in the 500.
Next came an 18th at Phoenix, followed by a poor run at Las Vegas (37th) and better-but-less-than-inspiring finishes at Bristol (17th) and Fontana (15th).
On Sunday at Martinsville, in wildly unusual circumstances, the Dinger broke through. The wacky nature of the finishing laps of the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 opened the door for Allmendinger, and he stepped forward, finishing second on the bumper of winner Ryan Newman.
The run gave Allmendinger new life in the point standings, where he jumped six spots to 20th.
As important as the finish, Allmendinger said, was the fact that the car was strong throughout the long afternoon.
“I’m working so hard,” he said. “I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself because these guys are used to running up front and deserve to run up front. I’m trying to learn as quickly as I can just like (crew chief) Todd Gordon is. We’re trying to learn together.
“I’m really thrilled with the finish, but I’m happy with how we ran all day. We had a good long-run car. The short run – we just didn’t turn very well, so [on] that restart I knew it was going to take a miracle to get around Ryan. But he ran me really clean, and he gave me a chance to get around him.
“I’m happy overall. It’s a solid finish. Right time for an off weekend and see if we can kind of build all these notes up and be ready for Texas.”
The benefits should carry over, Allmendinger said.
“We’re just getting better together,” he said. “I mean, it’s frustrating at times. I want to be up there every weekend just like these guys do. They deserve to be up there every weekend.
“Hopefully, this will give us an idea, and we can keep working on it.”
Gordon said a glimpse at success can be a motivator for the team.
“It’s big,” he said. “It’s big for both AJ and myself. I mean, obviously this 22 car is known for winning races. This kind of gives us a step in the right direction to having the success that we both know we can have.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.