Intersection. Photo by Anne Profitt.
Another day in Paradise. The weather is already hot, clear and breezy at Auto Club Speedway for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi Max 400 race. That’s 400 laps, not miles, on the two-mile speedway. The race starts at noon local time, 3pm EDT. This year NASCAR is starting races more consistently at the same hours.

And yes, the San Gabriel Mountains are still highly visible.

The Garage is thronged with fans who have the right passes, waiting outside haulers and the Driver’s Meeting waiting for a sight of their favorite drive, a photo op and/or autograph. Even more pit tours are being led, and the fan clubs and hospitality groups are moving around en masse. It’s all very colorful and when the engines aren’t running, it’s reasonably quiet.

Ryan Newman's car
Ryan Newman's car. Photo by Lynne Huntting

Kyle Busch's car
Kyle Busch's car. Photo by Lynne Huntting
All the Cup cars are making ready and going through the various Tech lines. The cars are housed individual garages across from their haulers. One exception is KYLE BUSCH/No.18 Toyota. He’s parked his car under an awning next to his hauler, which is at the end of the line in the first alley. The crew said they had more room this way.

A.J. ALLMENDINGER/No.43 Ford is more relaxed and comfortable in NASCAR than he was when he started three years ago. He’s nineteenth in the points, with 20 of them in bonus points for leading the race – which he’s done four times for 176 laps. His best finish was third at last year’s Daytona 500, and his first pole position was Phoenix this Spring.

Affable AJ Allmendinger. Photo by Lynne Huntting
What he lacks in height he makes up in confidence. Allmendinger, who hails from Los Gatos CA, said experience with the team, and starting to figure out what it is I want has gone a long way to boosting his confidence level from the stress he experienced when he first switched from open wheel IndyCar to NASCAR three years ago. “Knowing we can be more competitive is another booster.”

“Every car is better, lighter, and better engineered. AJ admits his team has had less time to work together and build trust and chemistry. MIKE SHIPLETT is the Crew Chief. We’ve moved the crew around to get it optimized. Many other teams have been together for many years. Their chef has a better recipe.

“We’re not quite there yet to win on any given weekend, but our goal is top ten each week. I have to put myself in position to win. Ford is really behind our program and our engines come from Roush Yates Motors. We’re running the FR9 now. This Ford motor is still new. While all three current RPM drivers started running the FR9 at the June Michigan race, AJ got his FR9 at Talladega in April and he finished 19th. The team got to run the new engine at Daytona in January for Qualifying and the Duel races. AJ’s teammate, KASEY KAHNE/No.9 won his Duel Race.

A.J.'s Car. Photo by Lynne Huntting

Next season Richard Petty Motorsports may run just two cars, with AJ and MARCOS AMBROSE of Australia, who is moving back to a Ford team at the factor’s request. Allmendinger and Ambrose have already started the bonding process. Allmendinger enjoys Ambrose’s long time experience in racing, stemming back to multiple championships in the highly competitive Australian V8 Supercar Series. AJ feels Ambrose is grounded with a family and children, and has a different background and driving style. Both of the drivers are hungry.

“I’m really hard on myself. We’ve got to limit our mistakes. Sometimes it’s down to luck, such as the ten cent washer on the tire which failed and cost us at Dover.”

Allmendinger has raced in the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race with Michael Shank Racing and had hoped their schedules would have allowed other such races, but it didn’t fit this year. On his bucket list AJ has the 24 Hours of LeMans, and would love to run a V8 race; although it would be interesting to learn how to shift with his left hand. Realistically speaking, however, Allmendinger realizes his current schedule with 36+ races a year, there’s only two chances of those races happening for him – little and none.

NASCAR has announced that annual January test for the Sprint Cup Season – Pre-season Thunder at Daytona – will be Thursday 20 January-Saturday 22 January 2011, with Sunday as the rain date.

Daytona is undergoing a massive track repaving project and the test will allow the teams to acclimate to the new pavement and test for the Daytona 500 being held on Sunday 20 February 2011, This will be the 53rd Daytona 500. There won’t be any Nationwide Series cars or Camping World Trucks at Pre-season Thunder, but are expected to have extra practice time during Speedweeks.

Hot Pass
Hot Pass. Photo by Lynne Huntting