CONCORD, N.C. — AJ Allmendinger landed the ride of his life when Penske Racing grabbed him during the offseason after Kurt Busch split with the team.
On paper, it doesn't seem as if Allmendinger has done much with his opportunity. But in the garage, everybody knows better.
Allmendinger has never been stronger in NASCAR, though he doesn't have the results to show for his improvement. He is 22nd in the Sprint Cup point standings after 11 races, and he has just one top-10 finish versus four finishes of 32nd or worse. But he also has led 99 laps, won a pole and qualified inside the top four four times. Last week he won the pole for the qualifying event before the All-Star race, only to get a flat tire in the warmup laps.
"A flat tire before we come to green? I mean, we've got to do something to change our luck up," he said.
Allmendinger had to pit for a tire change as the field went green, and it dropped him to last in the 22-car field. What happened next may be a sign his luck is about to turn. He drove his way into second place and transferred into the $1 million main event.
Though Allmendinger wound up 11th in the All-Star race, he was competitive and is looking ahead to the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night at Charlotte.
"We've had fast race cars. We just need a little bit of luck," said Allmendinger. The All-Star race "gives me a good amount of confidence. I'm excited to go to the 600."
Allmendinger was welcomed into NASCAR by rookie team Red Bull Racing. He was let go after two seasons, hired by Richard Petty Motorsports, then tried to keep moving forward despite three seasons of chaos at Petty. Allmendinger last season had a career-best 10 top-10 finishes and a 15th-place finish in the Cup standings.
Roughly a month after the season ended, Penske Racing called to offer him the No. 22 seat that had unexpectedly come open.
"We've had a lot of speed pretty much everywhere we've went, and even when we do struggle, our struggle is, I would say, 15th to 17th place," said Allmendinger, who is paired with crew chief Todd Gordon, promoted from the Nationwide series. "It's hard to look at the points and look at the results and take positives out of it. But ultimately this is more competitive than I've ever been. I'm up front a lot more than I've ever been, qualifying a lot better."
Team owner Roger Penske is impressed and believes the organization has played a role in the more difficult races. For example, Allmendinger won the pole and led 44 laps at Kansas, but he finished 32nd after a linkage broke.
"We believe we've let him down at times this season," Penske said. "But that team is showing every sign of being contenders here soon and capable of winning races."
Wallace leads five into the Hall of Fame
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rusty Wallace, who won 55 races and the 1989 Cup title and is now a broadcaster, heads the group of five picked for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Owner Leonard Wood and drivers Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas and Buck Baker are also in the hall's fourth class, which will be inducted in February.
Baker was tied with Fireball Roberts for the fifth spot, so a second vote was held for that slot.
"I'm just humbled, I really am," said Wallace, who was picked his first time as a finalist.