AJ Allmendinger sits upright on the edge of a couch in his motor home at drizzly Pocono Raceway, rubs his face with his hands for a moment. The air is anxious. He's rather distressed.
Such is the life of a race car driver with an uncertain future.
"As everything falls into place for everyone else, I'm still waiting," Allmendinger said, voice level raised just above the methodical thumping of a knife striking a cutting board as his wife, Lynne, prepares a salad.
Allmendinger's situation is unique to the NASCAR garage. Red Bull not only sponsors his team, it owns the team, too. Executives at Red Bull's Austrian headquarters make the final decision on its athletes, and are rarely around to banter with.
That, in turn, creates a disconnect with its Mooresville, N.C.-based NASCAR team, Allmendinger says, and ultimately leaves him wondering whether Red Bull plans to pick up the option on his current contract.
It has yet to do so, he said, and the window of opportunity in the NASCAR garage is closing. Typically by mid-August drivers must know their fate. Early September is often too late to be looking for work, and Allmendinger fears the "F1 mentality" of Red Bull Austria -- i.e. an early fall decision -- could leave him without an opportunity.
"The assumption in the garage is that I'm back at Red Bull, but they have the option and haven't picked it up yet," Allmendinger said. "I want to be here. When they put [Mike] Skinner in the car, I easily could've said '[Forget] this, I'm tired of it.' But I didn't want to do that. I wanted to improve, and I feel like I've done that. I want to drive for Red Bull."
If not, he has options. Other teams are pursuing him. Allmendinger's business manager, Tara Ragan, began fielding calls about her client's future back in May, after he raced his way into the Sprint All-Star Challenge by way of winning the Sprint Showdown.
"That was an eye-opener for people," she said. "Those images of him in Victory Lane made people wonder about him."
It's only gotten better. Allmendinger has shown marked improvement since returning to the seat at Talladega, Ala., and especially the past two weeks, since former Chip Ganassi Racing crew chief Jimmy Elledge came on board to direct the No. 84 team.
"Over the past couple of weeks I think I've been able to show my peers I can run up front," said Allmendinger, who finished 10th at the Brickyard and then 19th at Pocono.
"That team is better than it's ever been, and AJ is better than he's ever been," said Jay Frye, GM of Red Bull's NASCAR program. "That means results on the track. He must continue to have results."
The main obstacle Allmendinger faces is teammate Scott Speed, the former Red Bull Formula One driver who has experienced notable success in both the Craftsman Truck Series (he won at Dover earlier this year) and ARCA.
Red Bull corporate executives like Speed. His brash attitude is the corporate mantra personified, and he's escalating rapidly through the stock car ranks. Speed was slated for an ARCA schedule in 2008, but recently tested a Sprint Cup car at Nashville and the "expectation" is that he'll make his Cup Series debut later this year, Frye said.
"We're not in any hurry to advance Scott. We will evaluate and graduate him as we go, but we're in no hurry to make him a full-time Cup guy," Frye said.
Frye is evaluating all options, including expansion to three teams.
"We can expand," Frye said. "We are evaluating where AJ and Scott are. We have three very good young race car drivers. We should know in the next 30 to 45 days, have some conclusion by then, about our situation. The situation we're in is good because these guys are all performing now."
To expand, Frye said, another sponsor would have to be secured.
"Red Bull gives us phenomenal support, but there's no expectation or enthusiasm to sponsor three cars," he said. "What AJ needs to do is continue to perform. He's come a long way. It would behoove us to work it out because Red Bull has invested a lot in AJ.
"We've been so busy just trying to get the 83 in the Chase, get the 84 in the top 35 and challenge Scott with different things -- we've had success lately but we're not in any hurry to sit down and map out future because we've been working so much in the present. But in next 30 to 45 days we'll need to figure out the next step."
On now to The Six
"El Cerrito Place" is a great tune from a great album! Try Marc Broussard's "Home." Now my question: Was there any talk in the Tony Stewart ownership negotiations of Greg Zipadelli going with him? They have always had good chemistry, in my opinion, and I would assume the relationship would be a great advantage for Stewart's new team.
I assume JGR has him under contract, but I have not heard anything about a potential move for Zip.
-- Clint Davis, Paris, Tenn.
Certainly there was banter about Zipadelli heading to Stewart-Haas, Clint. Stewart probably offered him the world and a cardboard box to jump ship at Gibbs. You don't win two championships and more than 30 races with a guy and not try to coax him over.
But Stewart also promised Joe and JD Gibbs that he would do nothing to jeopardize their program, and Zipadelli is much bigger than just the No. 20 car. His insight and foresight make him a key decision-maker at JGR, for the entire company and its direction. He'll stay put at Gibbs and continue to direct the 20.
Joey Logano best respect that, too. No driver has ever fallen into a better situation than Logano. 'Here you go, kid, a championship-winning, battle-tested team for you. Enjoy it.'
There is a tangible comfort in the type of relationship Stewart has with Zipadelli. Zipadelli is able to adjust the No. 20 to Stewart's preference just by the tone of Stewart's voice, much less the informative feedback offered about the car's performance. That takes years to develop, and it exists with only a select few driver/crew chief relationships.
That is one of several crucial personnel decisions Stewart still faces. He must choose the right person to direct the No. 14 team, someone who understands and is able -- even if not willing -- to tolerate his quirkiness. Chemistry is not to be underestimated at the Cup level. Without it, you won't run 15th, much less fifth.
Zipadelli has directed JGR through more drama than Martin Scorsese, and they always come out just fine. He's part Bill Belichick, part Dr. Phil, part Gepetto.
Song of the week, per Patricia Marquekes' (Rapid City, S.D.) request: Been spinning a lot of Gary Allan this week, Patricia. His latest two singles, "Watching Airplanes" and "Learning How To Bend," reminded me what a complete star he is. Unapologetic, soul-searching writer with a unique, almost haunting sound. "Songs About Rain" and "Bourbon Borderline" have long been staples in my Silverado, too.
What do you think about Jacques Villeneuve? On the one hand, I saw him race in Montreal over the weekend and he ran with the best of them, in bad conditions as well.
This is a guy who qualified sixth at last October's race in Talladega. Then on the other hand, he wrecks out of the Daytona 500, and a few weeks ago he sticks his foot in his mouth telling the press he always hoped for an F1 return.
What do you think this guy's chances are of landing a full-time Sprint Cup ride?
-- Jay, Denver
Villeneuve won't return to Cup unless he brings a pile of sponsorship money with him, Jay.
Financially strapped teams are apt to put a driver in a car if he's a package deal with a lucrative sponsor, but most teams don't have time to groom 35-year-old drivers anymore. Look at Chip Ganassi. He can't get money for a reigning IndyCar and Indy 500 champion with a movie star wife. (Not that movie star wives have anything whatsoever to do with the equation, it's just an unavoidable variable when it comes to Dario Franchitti. And in fairness to both Ganassi and Franchitti, they entered the sponsorship game late. You're not going to find $20 million in six months.)
Franchitti and Villeneuve can both drive -- run-of-the-mill racers don't win championships at any level, much less F1 and IndyCar -- but transitioning to stock cars is damned difficult. And Franchitti didn't have delusions of grandeur entering NASCAR. He knew it would be difficult, but if you ask him it's harder even than he imagined.
Teams can't afford to sit and watch guys back it in the fence, fall outside the top 35 and then miss races altogether. This sport has become a marketing playground, and well-known, attractive, young drivers sell. But it's ultimately still about performance, and it always will be.
Not everyone is Juan Pablo Montoya. What he's done in Cup is ridiculous, and in my estimation gave false hope to a lot of people. I might be wrong, but I don't think Villeneuve is the caliber of driver Montoya is.
And no disrespect to Villeneuve, but my 94-year-old grandmother could qualify in the top 10 at Talladega in a good car.
I just read a story that Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants Pocono to be shorter. I think that story comes out twice a year, every time NASCAR goes to the Pennsylvania Mountains, and I couldn't agree more.
I was bored to tears for the middle third of that race. I've attended both Nationwide and Cup races and the Nationwide length just feels better. When is NASCAR going to consider shortening some of these races? Come on, NASCAR, let's keep these races below half a day.
-- Dustin, Maineville, Ohio
I don't disagree, Dustin. To me, 1,000 miles at Pocono in a two-month span is about 200 too many. Less is often more. (See: Truck Series.) But in having this very conversation with paying NASCAR fans Saturday afternoon at the Split Rock cabana bar, it quickly became apparent that they enjoy the length.
I tried to plead my case. The more beers we drank, the more they told me, in essence, to shut up. And the stands were packed Sunday, so in my book those folks have say in the argument.
Plus, it's far more complicated than merely saying, 'OK, we're going to cut down the length.' The network broadcast partners -- FOX, TNT and ESPN/ABC -- sell advertising inventory based on race lengths from previous years. My bosses wouldn't take too kindly to having to reimburse advertisers for shortened races.
NASCAR isn't inclined to change anything. It's not even on the radar.
Case in point regarding the aforementioned paying fans: Bubba, below. Most all sportswriters are used to haters. It's part of the deal. Rarely does someone take time to write something kind. Bubba did, and it was cool as hell, but I'll spare you guys the butt-kissing.
I consider myself one of The Six even though I have never written. [Insert 60 words of butt-kissing here.]
All right, I'll remove my lips from your butt now and get to the point. I am tired of everyone dissing Pocono. I have been to several other tracks and this place is the cleanest I've been to.
The racing is great coming out of Turn 3 and I love hearing all the drivers whine about the length of the race. Oh, and you never have to wait in line to pee at Long John. Come on, give one of The Six some love for his favorite track?
BTW, the Charlie Robison comment moved me to write. I have liked him ever since I heard "You're Not the Best." Dude, anyone who records the line "We'll twist those lids and hope our kids look more like me than you" deserves to be one of The Six (even if he is married to a Dixie Chick). Wipe up that milk you spit on the screen!
-- Bubba McKenna, Ellwood City, Pa.
Pocono does get a bad rap, Bubba, mainly because it's in Suburban Nowhere.
But, oddly enough, that's one reason I like it -- even though I'm as guilty as anyone about complaining about it. It ain't Vegas, and the race is too long, but there are several wonderful traits about the place. The surrounding area is gorgeous, and the old-school vibe is quite relaxing for everyone. The weekend schedule is forgiving, and gives the crews some well-deserved "me" time.
For me, there's also something enamoring about the Pocono tunnel. I feel like I'm driving right into "Stroker Ace." It looks like NASCAR used to look, before Bruton Smith rewrote the script.
The racing at Pocono isn't the best on tour, but it's certainly not the worst. And I'll tell you this: The fans there are as loyal as any in the country. Walking through that garage, the fans are educated and jovial, and ardently love their NASCAR.
I introduced a couple of my brother-in-law's colleagues to NASCAR at Pocono, and they thought they'd died and gone to heaven. They bought their kids driving-suit pajamas and were texting about Carl Edwards after the race. They're center-city Philadelphia businessmen, and they're now officially NASCAR converts.
All it takes is the flyover, the command to start engines and one flip of the toggle switch. To them, Pocono's not so bad.
Thanks for the love, Bubba. That was pretty cool for an ol' country boy to read. And don't worry about me forgetting who brought me.
Hey Mart Dog,
A good question, I guess, with the Nationwide Series losing Mexico, is how come they don't add old-school tracks like Rockingham or Hickory?
-- Collin, Negaunee, Mich.
Not big enough markets, Collin. Brian France's neighborhood is bigger than Hickory.
I noticed there are five DEI entries for Watkins Glen, with Teresa Earnhardt being the listed owner for all five. I thought the limit was four cars per name. Am I wrong?
-- Matt, Quincy, Ill.
You're not totally wrong, Matt, though DEI did since withdraw Regan Smith's ride. The four-team rule isn't in effect yet. It won't apply until the outset of the 2010 season. Jack Roush fields five cars every weekend. On that note
Roush is supposed to get down to four teams -- from the current 5 -- in 2010? And considering that Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle just re-signed, and David Ragan appears set in the 6 car, it would seem that Matt Kenseth or Jamie McMurray would be likely to go. Kenseth looks secure, so my question is, what's your best guess as to which current Roush driver will be shown the door (or a move to Yates)?
-- Jake James, Hollywood, Calif.
If you talk to folks on the inside, they say the 26, Jake. And that makes the most sense. As you stated, Edwards and Biffle are locked up to brand-new multiyear contracts. The No. 6 isn't going anywhere -- that's Roush's original team and his baby. Plus, Ragan has impressed a lot of folks this year.
That leaves Kenseth and McMurray, and you figure Kenseth isn't going anywhere. Then again, no one dreamed Tony Stewart was going anywhere, either.
Kenseth is a big-time (and still underrated) talent with a sponsor in his pocket. Who knows, maybe ownership is in his future. Stewart has changed the industry landscape this year. No one thought he'd want to own a Cup team.
Who invented the trend of the excessively curved bills on the ball caps in NASCAR? It used to be that you started with a relatively flat bill, and you bent it to your own preference.
Now, the hats have the curvature built in when you buy them, and you can't flatten them out. The curves that are built in run more vertical than horizontal and are starting to look dorkier than a flat bill.
I know this trend started in NASCAR. Is there any way we can reverse it?
-- Mark, North Canton, Ohio
I'm the wrong guy to ask that one, Mark. My hat bill looks like the St. Louis arch.
My buddies from California tell me I look like a redneck with my hat formed like that. Meanwhile they walk around looking like a duck-billed platypuses. To each his own
That's my time this week. I have to go meet with Bubba about The Six fan club. Kidding, kidding
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.