KERRY THARP: AJ Allmendinger has qualified for the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: We did? Nice. I’m glad I don’t have to run the Showdown anymore in the All-Star Race at least for one year. That’s awesome.
KERRY THARP: You’re also going to be in the 2015 Sprint All-Star Race.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I get to practice making a run to pit road now next year, because that scared the heck out of me this year.
KERRY THARP: Talk about this win tonight and the significance of it.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Obviously that goes without saying how big and how important it is to this race team. You know, to be able to share it with Tad and Jodi and Brad and everybody at this whole 47 race team here at the race track, back at the shop, Tad, Jodi and Brad especially, and I’ve said it a million times, and I truly believe it, that they make this team feel like such a family, and like we’re their own. To be able to share that together, that was what to me rolling into victory lane meant, that I was pulling into victory lane with my family because they were there. My parents are here, my girlfriend Tara. She’s been such a great direction in my life.
To be able to share that as a family, you know, my bus driver Skippy, he’s had to endure me breaking cabinets and punching refrigerators in my bus and having to repair stuff, so to be able to share that together, that to me is what it’s all about. That’s a part of family, and that’s the coolest thing that I’ll take from it.
It helped having Roger Penske and the Penske Racing guys and Richard Childress show up and congratulate me, too. That meant the world to me because it means that to me, at least, that I’m still a part of their family, too, and they care about me. As Tad was saying, what Richard Childress has done for us between the alliance and ECR motors and what Chevy has done to help us get to this point, we couldn’t do it without him. That was really cool. Everything that just happened in victory lane was something that I’ll never forget.
Q. Did you ever imagine your first win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series to be as dramatic and as tight in the finish as it was today?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I was hoping to make it boring, honestly. I wanted to lead all 90 laps and just have a cruise control. But that’s what makes the Sprint Cup Series so fun. You know you’re not going to get that. And Marcos, I don’t believe he’s one of the best road racers in NASCAR, I don’t believe he’s one of the best in the U.S., I believe he’s one of the best in the world. To be able to have to go with him basically one-on-one there, and I felt like – I’ve always respected him, but I respect him so much now because he could have easily just wrecked me, and honestly probably moved me out of the way and wrecked me and drove to the win and made the Chase and everything is great, but he didn’t. He moved me out of the way and he leaned on me and I leaned on him back, so to have that but have that mutual respect where we know what the limit is. We’re going to take it right to the edge of that limit but to be able to lean on each other but not wreck each other and have such a great finish for us, for me to be able to have that race be so memorable about how it ended, for the fans, they were so great for staying around through all the red flags, the track workers did such a great job to fix the fence and everything. It’s just a memorable day to go out there and remember everything that just happened, and I hope I win a lot more, but if I don’t, to be able to remember it like this, it’s pretty awesome.
Q. The last two restarts, Marcos passed you and you passed him back. Take us through those last two restarts and what was going on in your head.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, I knew I was going to have to pull every trick out of the bag that I could. He’s so good, and he’s so good about maneuvering his race car, making these big race cars turn and do what they need to do and that first restart, I thought Kurt was close enough behind me that I didn’t need to worry about him cutting under me. I was more worried about him trying to hang the outside of me, so when he turned under me, it surprised me he was still there, and to kind of bounce off each other through the esses which you’re not really supposed to do and then us go flying through the glass, felt like he got some stuff on his tires, so the next couple of corners, he over drove a little bit and I was able to get back under him and have that caution came out, and then that last restart, I was really hoping Carl would make a good restart and slide in between us, but I figured it wasn’t happening.
I got through the bus stop and I got a little loose through there and I knew I kind of checked myself up, and as I said, he could have probably drove through me and cleared me out, but he just moved me enough to get that car on the bottom that he needed, but I was able to hold the outside of him and knew I had the next corner and I kind of leaned on him getting into the left-hander, just know that if I can make him drive in deep with me, and I can make the corner and he messes it up, if they get racing behind me, and I get a three-, four-car-length gap, you know I have a good shot at this thing. Once I came off the last corner, I looked in my mirrors and saw them side by side and it was like the most perfect sight I had ever seen in my life. I just knew I needed one perfect lap there.
Just a dream come true.
Q. You had such incredible success in CART, and you think about the struggles that you had just getting up to speed, and then with Roger and then coming back with Roger, your guys who were up here earlier, your peers basically said that it took a lot from you to get back to this point. Can you just talk about what that road has been like, and now knowing that you’re going to be in the Chase? It may not be the best opportunity you’ve ever had to be in the Chase, but you’re there. Can you talk about what the last few years have been like?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Yeah. I mean, coming from open-wheel racing and coming into NASCAR, I watched it my whole life, and I thought, yeah, it looks tough but it can’t be that tough, and then I got in these cars, and I was like, what the heck are these things. These are the toughest things I’ve ever had to learn to drive. It shows, it’s one of the toughest series in the world, and I think sometimes it doesn’t get the respect when it comes to outside the U.S. just because maybe compared to like a Formula 1 it’s not as popular throughout the course of the world. It’s tough. We see all the guys that come over from open-wheel racing and the ones that – obviously Juan had a little success and Tony is probably the biggest success when it comes from open-wheel racing, but it’s difficult to just really describe how hard it is to come in this, and I probably didn’t come in the best way with a brand new team like that, and it’s just been a struggle the whole time.
You know, when I got with Roger, I knew it was the best opportunity of my life, and I tried to fake it inside and say this is the right time for it. I kept telling myself, yeah, this is the right time for it, but I knew it wasn’t the right time for it. Over the course of what happened, it made me become a better person and just really try to understand what life is all about because unfortunately the sport will take over your life. It will completely – when it’s good, it takes over, but when it’s bad, it really takes over because that’s all you can think about.
To be able to go through all that and come out the other side, and I’m so thankful last year for James Finch and Roger Penske and my great friend Michael Shank for all the opportunities they gave me to be in a race car and live some dreams out like racing in the Indy 500 and be able to win for Roger and get my picture on his wall so it looks like I’ve actually been there, but more importantly to come here and have Tad and Jodi and Brad say, you know what, we’re going to take a chance on him, and we think he’s going to make this race team better. I learn every day. I try to get better every day. I’m sure they’ll attest to you, there’s certain days it’s not good. I’m still not where I want to be. There’s other days that I’m happy and I’m where I want to be, but I wouldn’t go back and change the process because I know I am a happier person and I am a more centered person, and I know I need to keep working to get better at that still, but I’m surrounded by family, and to be able to share it together, we’ll never forget this.
I wouldn’t change anything about this.
Q. After what happened last night, did you feel like that kind of cast a shadow over everything that was going on today?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, I think it’s one of those things that you look back at and it’s a tough time for everybody. I said on TV after the race, this NASCAR community, as a whole we’re a family, and when anything like that happens, it’s something that you don’t just kind of erase and you forget about. And all of our thoughts and prayers, and it may not seem like it, or I wish there was more to do, but it goes to the Ward family and what happened. It also goes to Tony because it’s not like he’s sitting there and forgetting about it. It’s a tough scenario.
You just try to come together. That’s all you can do. You try to be thankful every day for the things that we have, the things that we’re able to share together, and you also know that there’s a lot less fortunate out there and there’s a lot of disasters, whether it’s in racing or not.
You just try to keep that in perspective and always have your thoughts and prayers and do whatever you can to help out and be better with it.
Q. Certainly a very lengthy red flag with 34 laps to go. How were you able to stay focused when you got out there for the restart?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: It’s part of the job. You don’t want to sit there and wait for over an hour, but it’s part of the job. It kind of gave us a chance, myself and Brian Burns, my crew chief and everybody to kind of say, okay, what’s going to happen here, what’s the strategy, what are we looking at, what are we going to do next, because once you get back in the car, whether it’s been an hour delay or you’re out there each lap, you go right back into the mode of knowing this is your job, and you’ve got to get right back into it.
I was actually – I felt like a lot more guys that had just pitted were going to stay out, so when I saw everybody come down pit road with me and there was only like three or four cars that were restarting in front of me, I knew they were on a lot older tires than I was, it made it a lot easier, so I knew I needed a good restart, if I could get in the lead immediately I could go into fuel saving mode. I got up to second on that restart and got around Carl as quickly as possible and immediately was gapping myself off of Kurt and Marcos while trying to save fuel just in case it went green. We all knew it wasn’t going to go green the whole time, but just in case. From there it’s just about doing everything that I’ve learned in my life to try to hold them off and make no mistakes.
Q. The test here a couple of weeks ago, pretty important, huh?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, with a team like ours, any time we can have a test at any racetrack, it’s important. But we came here last year and tested and it really helped out. We had a shot to win last year. I thought we had a great test with our Scott Products Chevy, and as I said, I was cautiously optimistic, because I didn’t want to get too excited but I really thought we had a good car. We get so much help from Richard Childress and ECR and Chevy with the alliance, but there’s no substitute for our own on-track testing, and we don’t get a lot of it.
I felt like we maximized that test. We did everything we needed to do during that test to come here and come back and say, okay, this is the little box that we’re going to work in. This is what we know works and what doesn’t work and we’re not going to skew from that. It was definitely huge for us to have that opportunity because without that, you just don’t know.
Half these races we’re testing stuff trying to figure out what direction we need to go. To be able to shorten that box is such a big deal for us.
Q. On Friday before being in the Chase was a reality, you were saying we may get in the Chase, but I don’t know whether we’re ready to contend for a title. I asked Brad (Daugherty) that same question just a few minutes ago. He said, we’ve got a shot. So do you feel the same way?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I mean, we’ve got a shot. I’m not going to disagree with him. Thanks, Brad. No, I mean, honestly, it’s huge to be in the Chase. You know, and I didn’t want to – when I was saying that on Friday, I didn’t want to just say, you know, just to be there, we’re happy to be there. I want to go in there and make some noise, but I think more importantly for all the sponsors associated with this team, Scott Products, and Bush’s Beans and Kingsford and Clorox, Charter, Shore Lunch and Hungry Jack and everybody that’s associated with this race team. Kimberly-Clark signed back up for three more years through 2017, Kingsford and Clorox did that earlier this year. I feel like our sponsors see the right direction, so to be able to give them, our race team, to be able to say we’re a Chase team, to get that exposure when it comes to whether it’s dollars on TV or just to be able to come back to the sponsors and say, see, what you’re putting into this race team, we’re working hard and we’re trying to get it back, and Tad and Jodi and Brad do such a good job with the way they market all of our products together and how they help promote them.
When it comes to the Chase, with the new format it doesn’t mean we can’t show up to Chicago and get hot early. The way the format is laid out, you don’t have to be amazing for 10 races, you just have to be good enough each three sets of races. The next thing you know you get to Homestead, anything can happen.
So Brad, I agree.
Q. How does this win today compare to your wins in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, the CART series and the Rolex 24?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: They’re all so special in different ways. CART at that time and Champ Car was what I had dreamed about my whole life, really, coming up through karting and being Paul Tracy’s go-kart driver and doing that and having a couple years and the way it worked out there being fired and hired the first race coming back and winning, that was so special. The Rolex 24 was special because I look at Michael Shank just like I look at Tad and Jodi and Brad, as one of my best friends, and we had tried for eight years to try to win that race together, and so many times he tried to say, you need to go to a team like Ganassi and go win this thing, you deserve to man it. I’d say, shut up, we’ll win it together at some point. So to be able to share it with him and great friends that have helped me along in my Oswaldo Negri and John Pew and my ex-teammate Justin Wilson, that was really special. Last year was so awesome because when I signed with Roger in 2012, his whole shop is laid out of all of the people that have won from Donohue to Mears to Castroneves throughout NASCAR and IndyCar and sports car racing, and I walked in that shop and said, man, I want to be on this wall. I want to be a part of that.
After it all happened, I thought, I’ll never get to be a part of that. I’ll never be able to be on that wall, and to know that if I walk into Penske Racing right now, I’m still on that wall like I was a part of it, that’s really cool. And to have Roger give me that opportunity again was something that he didn’t have to. I didn’t ask for it, but he felt like I earned it with everything I went through and how hard I was working.
To be able to give something back – I was hoping to give him the Indy 500 back, but it wasn’t in the plan. To be able to give that back, but honestly, nothing compares to today because I have went through hell in this series, absolute hell, whether it was missing 19 races my first year, wanting to slit my wrists on a weekly basis thinking about what am I doing here, to feel like I had it figured out and to lose my job with Red Bull and to be so close a couple of times with the 43 and then obviously to go through what I went through with the 22 and just to go through hell and back, and to know that this was my dream that I’ve worked so hard for over the last eight years was to win a race here, I mean, you can ask any of my family, Tad, Jodi, my parents, my girlfriend, it’s all I talk about. It’s what I am happy about one day and so hard on myself about the next day.
I don’t have to hear any more, AJ might be that next first-time winner. I’m tired of that, so I don’t have to hear about it anymore.
Q. You’ve got the sponsor announcement earlier this weekend. You guys come out, you win the race, you’re in the Chase, parents are here, you’ve got Brad ready to call Jimmie Johnson tomorrow morning. How are you going to look back on this weekend?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I’m going to enjoy tonight. I’m going to have fun with everybody, all my family on this race team that deserve to have fun because they are the ones that put the hard work in every day, every weekend. My crew guys, I mean, they show up to the racetrack, they show up Sunday night at whatever time we get home, they show up at 7:00 in the morning to tear the car apart again. All the crew guys back at the shop that spend those extra hours working on this car because we don’t have a lot of people to fine-tune these cars, share it with them. Having my family here and my parents and everybody, I’m just going to enjoy it. I’m sure I’ll get to Michigan, I’ll be on cloud 9, excited. I’m going to make my first run, I’ll be like, come on, Burns, you suck, let’s make this better, we suck again.
But no, I’m just going to have fun. It’s what it’s all about. I’ve dreamed about this moment, and I’m not going to forget it.