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AJ Allmendinger Among Those Racing Their Way Into NASCAR's Daytona 500

AJ Allmendinger thought he'd learned plenty about pressure during his sometimes bumpy first two years racing in the Sprint Cup.

Then seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty put his hands around Allmendinger's neck.

Before getting into his Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge and attempting to race his way into the Daytona 500, Allmendinger received a message from the King.

Get it done.

"It kind of puts a little incentive to make it happen," Allmendinger said. "It ultimately came down to that I felt like I deserved to be in this race."

He drove like it Thursday, securing a spot in NASCAR's biggest race by finishing 10th during the second 150-mile qualifier.

Allmendinger quickly flipped on his sunglasses after emerging from his car so nobody would see him cry. Blame it on pent-up emotions two years in the making. He narrowly missed qualifying in 2007 and 2008 before getting let go by Red Bull Racing toward the end of last season.

He agreed to a short-term gig with Petty Motorsports in the offseason.

"We had a little chip on our shoulders," Allmendinger said.

They weren't the only ones. Castoffs Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs also locked up spots in the Daytona 500, sweet redemption for drivers who came to the track last week with few resources and little time to get their act together.

Mayfield put his team together less than a month ago after convincing All-Sport to come on as a sponsor for his No. 41 Toyota. He ran strong during the entire session, working his way up to third before finishing one spot ahead of Allmendinger. Not bad for a guy whose career the past two years has been in a tailspin after parting ways with Evernham Motorsports in 2006.

"To know where we were at then, how much hard work has been done in such a short amount of time is just unbelievable," Mayfield said. "To come here and do this, it's like winning 10 races, I'll tell you that."

Mayfield will have to settle for the chance to win just one thanks to the new business model brought on by the economic troubles that have shaken the sport. He brought about 20 crew members to Daytona in an effort to get back to basics and reign in expenses.

Most of his crew haven't received their first paychecks yet, and Mayfield started laughing when he realized he didn't know everybody's name.

"Our motto for our team is: Keep it small," Mayfield said. "I guess you could call it old school. I'm not sure. Old school with open-minded technology or open-minded something."

Whatever it is, Mayfield, Allmendinger and Riggs had it when they needed it.

Riggs took a job with startup Tommy Baldwin Racing in early January because both his and Baldwin's options were limited. They zipped into the Daytona 500 with an eighth-place finish in the first 150-mile qualifier.

"I don't think anyone has any high expectations of us," Riggs said. "We want to under-promise and over-deliver."

So does Allmendinger, who was unceremoniously dumped by Red Bull Racing with eight races left in the 2008 season. He managed to land on his feet by taking a temporary job with Gillett Evernham Motorsports to end the year, finishing inside the top 16 four times in five starts.

Yet he found himself without a job — again — when the offseason started before eventually signing a deal to drive a limited schedule for RPM this year. Allmendinger failed to land a front row spot during pole qualifying last Sunday and was left with a daunting task: locking up one of the four open spots remaining during the 150s.

He and Mayfield spent the early portion of their qualifier racing each other only to realize they had some breathing room in front of the other drivers trying to get one of the wild cards.

"When you're out of the show, you pretty much got two options: make it or bring it back on a wrecker," Allmendinger said.

His car made it off the track intact with a spot on row 10 next to Paul Menard for the 500.

"You just had to drive hard," Allmendinger said. "We had nothing to lose."

He wasn't the only driver who ended a run of tough luck Thursday. Jeff Gordon picked up his first victory — albeit an unofficial one — in more than a season by taking the first qualifier.

"Because of the pressure that we felt from being winless last year, you know, it's important for us to gain some momentum and confidence that we're doing the right things," he said.

The three-time Daytona 500 winner will start in the second row next to Kyle Busch, who rolled to victory in the second qualifier, the first step toward wiping away the sour taste left by last fall's Chase for the championship when he faded from first to 10th.

Busch, Gordon and 37 other drivers were already assured of a spot in the 500 before they took the green flag Thursday thanks to NASCAR's confounding qualifying system for the season-opener. Allmendinger thought his No. 44 would have a spot a week ago by getting in on owner points from last season.

He found out he needed to race his way in on his way to Florida.

"You can sit and whine about it, moan about it, just worry about it, or you can go out there and get the job done," he said. "That's the only option you have. You can't change it. It's the system. It's the way they worked it. So you got only one option and that's to go get the job done. That's what we focused on when we got down here."