By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
FONTANA, Calif. -- At the beginning of the season, the back of the Sprint Cup garage is always an odd assortment of promising, hopeful new teams and assorted lightly funded also-rans, but this year that real estate is downright surreal.
Car-owner points determine a lot in NASCAR, from who has a guaranteed free pass into the show to where crews physically park their haulers and work on their cars.
The garages farthest away from the entrance to pit road go to teams that are struggling. These stalls are not glamorous and, worse still, instead of the positive energy that surrounds last year's success stories, there is a feeling of loud desperation as 13 teams required to make the show on time compete for only eight open slots.
That's why the likes of past champion Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman are crammed shoulder to shoulder with part-time teams and organizations that were cobbled together at the last minute. These superstars make improbable roommates for Mike Garvey, David Starr and Todd Bodine, who were among those trying to make the Cup show this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for Sunday's Auto Club 500.
Sitting smack dab in the middle of this eclectic group of racers is perhaps the unlikeliest feel-good story of Daytona's Speedweeks: A.J. Allmendinger.
Allmendinger sits third in the points, but that doesn't make a bit of difference this week since last year's owner points determine the 35 guaranteed starting spots for the first five races of the season. He still had to qualify Friday, and he did -- he took eighth, on the outside of the fourth row, and was the fastest "go or go home" driver.
"It's one of those things that you celebrate on Sunday night," Allmendinger said about his strong Daytona run. "I was happy about it but woke up Monday and was ready to get here and focus because now the season really starts."
Allmendinger's rapid development in the second half of 2008 was instrumental in elevating one of the two Red Bull Racing Toyotas into the top 35 in owner points, but he was edged from the seat of that car in favor of rookie Scott Speed. That means that the young former Formula One driver could rest easy before Friday's qualification session while Allmendinger continued to sweat.
Is there a rivalry between Allmendinger and the racer who took his ride? "We hated each other when we came up through racing," Allmendinger said. "There's no medium about it. As we got older, everyone seemed to pit us against each other as the two Americans that are going to Formula One, that are going to fight to be the American in Formula One."
For the record, Speed made it to motorsports' top open-wheel level, while Allmendinger did not -- although he had a successful open-wheel career in the Champ Car series.
"We've always had a lot of respect for each other," Allmendinger said of Speed. "If we wrecked, we wanted the other person to wreck harder. Whether it was battling for first or second or 21st or 22nd, if we could beat each other, it was a good day. It was a lot of fun. It was a tough rivalry."
During the offseason, Allmendinger was penciled in to take over the No. 19 Richard Petty Motorsports ride (formerly known as Gillette Evernham Motorsports) of Elliott Sadler. But when Sadler, who signed a three-year contract extension last spring, started talking lawsuit, he was quickly put back in the No. 19, which he drove to a 24th-place finish in last year's standings.
Allmendinger even had one final chance to get into the guaranteed starting positions when it appeared that several top-35 cars were not going to show up at Daytona. Then NASCAR blessed a pair of 11th-hour deals that elevated Bowyer and John Andretti above him, and Allmendinger found himself in the all-too-familiar position of having to qualify on time at the start of the year -- the third straight season he's had to do that.
"I was definitely more nervous last week," Allmendinger said Friday morning. "But there are some nerves here because anything can happen out there. I've been doing this for 2 1/2 years now, but the nerves are always there."
No matter how strained his nerves may be, all of the cars outside the top 35 in points are in a tenuous position. The slightest mistake in qualifying can send them home, and that could have a drastic effect on Allmendinger's hopes to run a full season.
"As of right now, we still only have the eight races (of sponsorship for his No. 44 Dodge) plus the Daytona (July) race," Allmendinger said. "Basically, we have (just) the nine races (right now)."
Kasey Kahne understands his new teammate's frustration.
"(Allmendinger) definitely needs to run well," Kahne said. "He needs to impress and try to get sponsorship. That's what they're racing for this year. That's how it's structured as far as I've seen. For him, he needs to show up and do his best every time.
"The way I look at it, that's the same way I would race any day. I think things might change a little bit being at different positions. A.J. has had a full-time deal for the last couple of years, and this year he doesn't."
That's why what he accomplished at Daytona was so significant.
"The goal is to obviously win, but finishing third in Daytona was like winning it all," Allmendinger said. "And if we get a top-10 here, it will be a success. The expectations are just so different here."
However, finishing strong isn't enough to secure a ride. In fact, Allmendinger might need to be near-perfect in the coming weeks to not only make all of the first five races, but also to remain in the top 35 through that span.
"You go out there and try to beat the 48 (reigning three-time champ Jimmie Johnson) and 99 (Carl Edwards)," Allmendinger said. "That will get a lot more attention than the guys who are in our same boat. There are 42 other guys that I want to beat, so I don't pay attention to one specific person or anybody like that. If we go out there and win the race, that gets the most exposure.
"There are so many guys and so many more things that can happen that allows you not to win a race. You have to set your goals different here. In Champ Car, if you weren't on the podium or didn't win, you had a bad day. Here you have to set your goals differently."
What Allmendinger has achieved thus far in his brief Sprint Cup career -- particularly last season and, of course, during the just completed Speedweeks -- has earned him increased respect from his peers.
"It's not like he's new to the sport," Kahne said. "He's definitely figured it out. I think he's a great driver and will be a big benefit to our team and great to have around. They just need to perform. That's really how it is."
Allmendinger did his job on Friday in qualifying. Ironically, Speed is lined up one spot behind and was one of the first people to stop in the garage and congratulate Allmendinger.
Last year, Allmendinger looked up at the sky and watched the rain pour down before this event. Having failed to race his way into the 2008 Daytona 500, he was going to miss his second consecutive event, and that put him way behind in points.
This year is "is definitely a lot better," he says with a big smile across his face.
"I'm having a lot more fun this year," Allmendinger said. "The whole atmosphere of the team is a lot fun. (Plus) I'm confident in this team.
"I knew we were going to have a good chance to make the race, so that was not a big concern. I'm more concerned about Sunday. If we come out of here with a top-15 finish I'll be happy, (and) if we come out with a top-10 I'll be thrilled, so that is what I'm focused on."