Busch-Junior debate? What about AJ-Speed?

March, 26, 2009

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Forget the debate about whether Kyle Busch is better than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Stop worrying about whether Earnhardt and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. belong together.

Let's talk about the biggest story in the first five races of the Sprint Cup season:

AJ Allmendinger versus Scott Speed.

The early returns say Red Bull Racing made a mistake in releasing Allmendinger in favor of the former Formula One driver. Not just a little mistake. A big one.

Bigger than Hendrick Motorsports letting go of Busch to sign Earnhardt. At least in that situation both sides won. Joe Gibbs Racing has 10 wins courtesy of Busch. HMS has a lot of publicity and sponsor dollars thanks to Earnhardt.

Red Bull has little to show for choosing Speed over Allmendinger. Speed ranks 36th in owner points, meaning he isn't guaranteed a spot in the field for Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway. One slip in qualifying and he could dig a hole so deep he'll never get in the top 35.

Allmendinger is 16th in points with Richard Petty Motorsports. He finished third in the Daytona 500 after having to qualify his way in, and has finished 17th and 16th the past two weeks at Atlanta and Bristol.

But before we jump the gun and call the case closed, Red Bull loses, don't forget Allmendinger's early struggles. He failed to make his first four races in 2007 and didn't qualify for 19 of 36 events.

He finished 43rd in points that season, and 2008 wasn't much better. He finished 36th in the final standings, failing to make the first three races before being replaced temporarily by Mike Skinner.

Allmendinger didn't start to show potential until midway through the season, when he put together a handful of top-15 finishes. By then, executives of Austria-based Red Bull were developing Speed through the ARCA, Nationwide and Truck Series after their huge investment in his F1 career failed. He actually had a victory and nine top-10s in the Truck series. There was promise.

Allmendinger didn't really turn heads until he was released and went to Gillett Evernham Motorsports (now RPM) for the season's final five races. He had four finishes between 11th and 16th and outperformed veteran Elliott Sadler, to the point that Allmendinger was slated to drive the No. 19 Dodge until Sadler threatened legal action.

In those races, Speed had only one finish better than 30th -- 16th in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But it wasn't as if Red Bull simply cast Allmendinger aside. The team wanted to give him a one-year deal and put him in a third car. Allmendinger wanted more long-term security, and thought he could get it before the economy shrank opportunities due to lack of sponsorship.

Red Bull had little choice, short of casting Speed aside, but to let Allmendinger go.

And don't forget: Allmendinger still doesn't have sponsorship for a full season, although four more races have been added to what was a nine-race schedule -- the first eight races and the July Daytona race -- to keep him running in hopes that money will come in.

So this isn't a slam dunk win for RPM over Red Bull. Speed deserves time to grow into the position just as Allmendinger has.

There's also no question Allmendinger has been a big early-season story.

"All the love is about AJ," RPM vice president of competition Robbie Loomis said earlier this week. "He's got a great personality and has tons of energy. I love the fact that he's finished 17th at Atlanta and he's like, 'Man, I wish that we could have gotten more out of the car. It was really good.'

"You love that passion and drive and fire in a driver, and I think he's going to be somebody."

We know where Loomis stands in this debate. He was looking at Allmendinger before Petty Enterprises merged with GEM. Red Bull's other driver, Brian Vickers, has maybe a better perspective.

"For me to say it was the right decision, the wrong decision, now, just because of five races and one is higher in points than the other, would probably be irresponsible," he said, admitting he didn't know either driver well at the time the decision was made.

Yes, it would be irresponsible. Let's give this one time to develop.

Now you can go back to talking about Earnhardt and Busch and Earnhardt and Eury.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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