Published March 24, 2013
Searching for the Phoenix Racing transporter can be a challenge these days.
Traditionally, the No. 51 hauler is somewhere toward the back 40 of the garage. For now, James Finch’s team is parked in the high-rent district among trucks carrying cars and equipment from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
“I walked past it the first couple of times at Bristol,” said AJ Allmendinger, one of three drivers who have helped maintain a top 10 presence in owner points for the team. “I didn’t realize they changed the points so early. I thought it was still after five races, so I kept walking and they said, 'No, you’re way back down there, man.'
“It’s just cool for these guys. These guys deserve it. I feel like I’m just a real small part of it. These guys work their butts off. It’s still early. I’ve been around this sport long enough to know that four races don’t mean a ton in the grand scheme of things. But for what these guys went through last year, as hard as they’ve worked, the products that they’re bringing to the racetrack it’s really cool for them.
“Everybody has to stay grounded to a certain extent because a couple of bad weeks can steamroll you pretty quick.”
Allmendinger, 31, is well aware how humbling racing can be. The last time he traveled to Auto Club Speedway, it was at the suggestion of his former NASCAR, and now current IndyCar owner, Roger Penske for the open-wheel series’ season finale on Sept. 15.
At that time, Allmendinger didn’t have a NASCAR license. He was participating in the Road to Recovery program after testing positive for Adderall. Honestly, he didn’t have any expectations, either.
“It was just nice to get back to a racetrack at that point,” Allmendinger said. “I still wasn’t allowed at NASCAR tracks. It was good for the first time to be seen again. On the IndyCar side, I still had a lot of friends and people I hadn’t seen for a while that I got to just hang out with. But in my mind, I didn’t think it would lead to anything.
“I was just taking one step at a time. I was actually nervous to see everybody again.”
Having the support of Penske throughout the process was immeasurable. Having Penske provide Allmendinger with an IndyCar ride at Barber Motorsports Park in two weeks and the Indianapolis 500 in May is difficult for the driver to put into words.
“The IndyCar deal was a big surprise from Roger,” Allmendinger said.
The week following Fontana, Allmendinger satisfied NASCAR’s rehab requirements and was reinstated in the sport. Three weeks later, Finch offered Allmedinger the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet ride at Charlotte Motor Speedway — the first of four races.
“Why not?” asked Finch. “He’s a pleasure to be around. He’s done a really good job. I knew he had the speed. I just need to find a sponsor so we can keep the program rolling.”
Finch has dabbled in NASCAR since 1989, first in the Nationwide Series and then in Sprint Cup. By 2009, Finch expanded to nearly running a full season in Cup and won his first race in that division with a future champ named Brad Keselowski. The last three seasons, Phoenix Racing has campaigned full-time but with mixed results.
Finch understands the key to reaching the next level will be sponsor and manufacturer support. Although the Spartanburg, S.C.-based team received an assist from sponsor Guy Roofing on a limited basis, given the current economic climate a full-time backer and help from the factory is a tough sell.
“We have really good cars,” Finch said. “But I’m realistic enough to know that given the current parameters the teams with the technology and engineering will take over.”
Still, Allmendinger posted an average finish of 12th in his two starts for Finch. Since the team unloaded this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Allmendinger has not only been on the left side of the speed chart, he posted the third-, second- and seventh-fastest laps, respectively, throughout first, second and final practice. In Happy Hour, Allmendinger logged the fourth best consecutive lap average with a speed of 177.549 mph – just behind Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer and his former Penske teammate Keselowski.
On Sunday, however, Allmendinger will roll off 26th. If there’s been an area where the team has struggled with this season it’s qualifying. During Friday’s time trials, Dinger just didn’t have the balance he was searching for to put down a fast lap. Considering where he was six months ago — without a ride in any racing series — he’s not going to let a poor qualifying effort get him down.
“Now, it’s just about trying to be at my best as much as I can,” Allmendinger said. “It’s still the same mentality in a certain way where I put all the pressure on myself. I’m doing everything that I can. And if it’s good enough, then it’s good enough. If not, I know I gave it all I had out there.
“The last few years I’ve been so stressed. I always get nervous, don’t want people to think I came in and didn’t give 100 percent, because I always will. But I also think, where I was, I just wasn’t in a good mind state. That’s something I still try to work on that every day. I’m far from perfect by any means. Just trying to be physically and mentally ready, looking back a year ago, I wasn’t there.”
There’s a sense of calm in Allmendinger these days. He seems more at ease with his crews and more accepting of his limitations — whether in a stock or Indy car. Although the affable driver has not lost his determination, he’s also learned “not to expect anything” either.
“I know this is my last chance. I know it is,” Allmendinger said. “In a way, I guess it’s a good thing because if I go out there and make something happen, then I’ve done a good job to earn that.
“If I don’t get any more chances, then I don’t want it to be because I wasn’t ready. I don’t want any excuses. If I’m not fast enough, it won’t be because I didn’t try.”