With A.J. Allmendinger heading to Penske Racing to drive the #22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge, (after Kurt Busch and Penske had a mutual split) expectations for the former open-wheel star will be high.
Allmendinger has yet to win in the Cup Series. His career best finish was third in the Daytona 500 in 2009. However, Allmendinger has improved his average finish, as well as his average starting position, and has improved his overall position in the Sprint Cup standings in each of his three full seasons in the Sprint Cup Series. Now entering his fourth season with a team that most people would consider and top team in the garage, the pressure will be mounting on Allmendinger to perform at an even higher level.
Busch, now with Phoenix Racing, is taking a step back from the pressures that come along with being a driver for a top multi-million dollar organization. Phoenix Racing is a single-car team that driver Landon Cassill drove for in 32 races last year. Despite racing in 32 races in 2011, Cassill posted only four top 20 finishes. Busch made the chase last year while winning two races, including winning a chase race at Dover. Busch will have Hendrick Motorsports equipment, but he will have limited amount of pit crew members and resources.
If Busch can control his emotions, it will be interesting to watch him in a single-car team with limited funds. With this move, the long unanswered question of is it more the driver or the car, should be answered.
Expect Busch to have a good year, if not great. Once Busch gets adjusted to his new team, he should be a threat to win races by mid-season. While I do not see Busch as a chase contender, I do see him making the chase through the new wild card system. Busch is a good short track driver, especially at Bristol where cars do not seem to mean as much as the driver. Busch will find a way to win this year and he should not be written off by any means.
As for Allmendinger, I expect him to continue his upward climb in his career. He has proven that he belongs in the Cup Series. Now with this opportunity at Penske, Allmendinger can prove he is one of the best. However, I still do not see him visiting victory lane, at least for this year. Allmendinger will have a better all-around year but come short of making the Chase.
Here are my final predictions.
Busch- 2 wins 9 top 5′s 15 top 10′s
Allmendinger- 0 wins 5 top 5′s 13 top 10′s