Why Is Everybody Surprised By AJ Allmendinger?

Two races into the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, AJ Allmendinger and his #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford sit third in the points standings.

And nobody can seem to believe it.

Perhaps the reason for the surprise is the fact that Allmendinger is notorious for starting slow.

In his rookie year of 2007, Allmendinger did not qualify for a race until his fifth attempt, which came at Bristol. In 2008, Allmendinger failed to qualify for the first three races before being replaced for 5 events by veteran Mike Skinner. In the past two seasons, Allmendinger has made strides, but still has not found himself anywhere near the top of the points heap.

Or perhaps the reason for the surprise is the fact that, towards the end of last year, it was uncertain whether Allmendinger would even have a ride.

RPM’s financial woes have been well-documented. Towards the end of the 2010 season, it looked as though each race could be the team’s last. Overdue payments to Roush-Fenway Racing, which supplies technical support to RPM, kept the team’s cars at the previous weekend’s venue until just days prior to the next race.

With all that in the history books, Allmendinger has overcome the odds and sits third in points after two races. But is it really that surprising?

I mean, really?

Let’s take a few things into account here. First of all, it’s not like Allmendinger is a bad driver. We’ve seen flashes of promise from him on the track, particularly last season. Towards the end of 2010, Allmendinger was one of the most consistent drivers, finishing in the top 15 in 7 of the final 11 races, including three top 10s.

On at least three occasions during that span, Allmendinger even looked primed to get his first win in NASCAR.

The momentum of his fifth-place effort at Homestead to close out the season carried over into this one. In the first two races, Allmendinger has finished 11th and ninth, respectively.

But lest we forget, the first two race tracks are venues Allmendinger seems to enjoy.

Daytona is a track Allmendinger has had a very good chance to win at twice; both in the 2009 and 2010 Daytona 500. He finished third in the rain-shorted race in ’09, and had a top 5 car in 2010 before a late-race spin while running fifth put him out of contention.

Allmendinger earned his first top 10 finish at Phoenix on Sunday; a surprising fact considering he earned his first career pole at the 1-mile speedway a year ago, and that he typically runs well at the flat tracks.

One more thing: Each of the first two races this season have featured a wreck consisting of at least 12 cars. Allmendinger has been able to maneuver through both of them, and that has no doubt helped his standing.

So when we combine Allmendinger’s driving ability, his momentum coming into the season, the two big crashes, the fact that we’re just two races into the season and that both races have been at tracks Allmendinger likes, is there really any reason to be surprised by his early-season success?

If Allmendinger is able to hold a top 5 position in the standings through ten races, then I’ll be a bit surprised(albiet, pleasently) by his performance.

But right now, I really see no reason to be surprised by his early-season success. And neither should anybody else.

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