Allmendinger still trying to make first Cup race

FONTANA, Calif. -- A.J. Allmendinger hung out in the California Speedway garage Sunday unintentionally incognito wearing jeans, sneakers, a hooded sweatshirt and sipping from a can of Red Bull energy drink.

This was not exactly how he had planned to spend his weekend. He wanted to be noticed, believe him, but life is challenging in the NASCAR Nextel Cup series, maybe even more than he thought.

"It's easy," Allmendinger said, facetiously. "I love sitting here watching cars go by on the race track and me not in them."

All jokes aside.

"It's tough," he said. "I won't lie -- it's tougher than I ever expected."

Allmendinger, trying to make the transition from Champ Car racing to the Nextel Cup series, is 0-for-2 in starts this year with first-year, Toyota-backed Team Red Bull. Despite limited practice last Friday -- the team was at the back of the line for inspection and was delayed 45 minutes -- he was oh-so-close to qualifying for Sunday's Auto Club 500, missing by a tenth of a second.

Disappointed? Yes. Discouraged? Hardly.

"I'm never going to quit," said Allmendinger, who won five Champ Car series races last year. "Stuff like this [missing the race] pisses me off to start and then makes me want to work harder to make it. Sure, you want to make the show and have everything come easy and just be great … but the biggest thing is, we were close -- we were a tenth away, and that's something to learn off of."

He stuck around California Speedway because he wanted to learn, to pick up anything from anyone, anywhere. He was there to show his team that he wants nothing more than to be a Nextel Cup driver.

Allmendinger just needs to catch a break.

"He's a determined driver," said Marty Gaunt, general manager of Team Red Bull. "He's harder on himself than anyone is. This is a whole team effort, and it's a whole different side of auto racing that he hasn't seen. It's a whole new ballgame for him, and we're behind him 100 percent. He gets closer and closer. All in all, he's made a lot of progress.

"I know it doesn't seem like it, because he hasn't entered a race, but A.J.'s a great driver. Once he gets it, he will continue. It's a whole new world."

Gaunt chose Allmendinger because he has a natural ability to go fast. But going fast is one thing; having the experience to know how to use that ability in the Cup cars is quite another.

The consensus is this -- it will take time, and Allmendinger is getting accustomed -- sort of -- to that idea. Patience is not his strong suit.

"Ha! No," Allmendinger said. "As my wife puts it, I want everything yesterday. No, I'm not patient, but I'll tell you, this sport will teach you patience. I think that's part of what makes me a good race-car driver. I don't just take this as being satisfied. I want to win. I want to be in the race. For so many reasons I want to be winning, but you've got to have some patience right now. Honestly, that's the thing I'm trying to teach myself now."

By Allmendinger's calculations, he's had about 14 days in a NASCAR Busch or Nextel Cup car. Total. He is desperate for seat time and said he would take any opportunity to drive a Busch car this season, as well, just for additional opportunity to learn the cars.

"When I got in these, it was a whole new beast that I'm still trying to figure out," he said. "They're fast race cars on an oval. They're always on edge. It's the ones at the top who are the best at that … they're not any more on edge than I am, but they know what to expect when it happens and how to control it, and that's the stuff I'm trying to learn."

Allmendinger is an avid video-game player. He loves the NFL, particularly feisty Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, a gamer in every sense of the word. He also plays a lot of college football video games and almost always pulls for the underdog.

He's feeling like he occupies that role these days.

"There are a lot of people who will say I can't do it, mostly open-wheel writers," he said. "It's tough. There aren't a lot of open-wheel drivers who have done it. I do look at myself as the underdog. There's a lot of press who say I can't do it, or I can't last with a rookie team. Part of me wants to have that me-against-the-world mentality.

"When you read that or don't read it, it's the inside that people never see except the people inside. As long as my team keeps sticking by me …"

His next attempt to qualify comes in Las Vegas in less than two weeks. His test there last month certainly was memorable with two crashes. Allmendinger takes it all in stride.

"Even though it was not a great test there, at least I know where not to crash," he said with a laugh.

Still, he has no regrets leaving a series where he was at the top of his game. Patience, he reminds himself, patience.

"It's probably the wrong year to start this," he said. "We picked the hardest year to jump in. But no, no regrets. I didn't expect to leave Champ Car and come to a brand-new team in a car that is basically so different, there's no comparison. My only thing is I would have liked to have had more laps in a Busch car or Cup car before we ever started the season to try to make it into races. That's nobody's fault.

"You've got to take the positives. I get disappointed for myself. I put all the pressure on my shoulders, because I know how hard these guys are working, and I want to be on the racetrack for them, because that's how you truly show all the hard work. That's how you learn."

Angelique S. Chengelis is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage.