By Matt Weaver — AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola posted their first-ever Sprint Cup Series victories this season with the added bonus that it also permitted them entry into the new-look Chase for the Championship. Now the challenge for the two decided underdogs is to make the transition from a potential one hit wonder to perhaps, a contender for the championship.
Out of the two, it appears that Almirola has the best chance to advance into the second round as his Richard Petty Motorsports team tested at Chicagoland Speedway while his over-the-wall crew received enhancements from the No. 9 team at RPM.
“We had a great test at Chicago,” Almirola said on Thursday during the annual Chase Media Day. “I felt like we took some of the things we learned here and applied them to Atlanta. We qualified seventh and finished ninth and that was a really solid run for us and a good day. That’s really all we need to do for the next three weeks.
“I feel like if we can kick off Chicago with a solid qualifying effort and a top-10 race and do the same the next two races, there’s no reason why we can’t advance.”
To aid his efforts, Almirola will compete in the Nationwide Series for the next three races for Biagi DenBeste Racing in the No. 98 entry often piloted by David Ragan. Almirola will remain in that car for the rest of the season as long as he remains eligible for the championship.
“The team and I feel like the extra time on the track will be beneficial,” Almirola said. “Whether I win or run 15th, that’s not what we’re looking at. What we’re looking for is to understand the tire data and understand what the track does. Most weekends, we run Happy Hour and then hit the track on Sunday with very little of an idea for what the tire did during the Nationwide race the day before.
“Now we’re going to have first-hand knowledge of where the track is going and how to plan our changes before the race.”
As for Allmendinger, he and the JTG-Daugherty Racing team just received a brand new chassis from their technical partners at Richard Childress Racing. RCR placed just one team (Ryan Newman, No. 31) into the Chase and that organization has increased their support of Allmendinger in the efforts to stack the deck.
“They’ve been so helpful from the start and now with them only having one car in the Chase, Richard (Childress) has been so kind to say ‘you know, we’re going to try and put as much effort as we can behind your car as well because it helps us if you run well too.’ I wouldn’t say it has changed the relationship, but I definitely feel like we’re part of their team too.”
While Allmendinger isn’t blind to the fact that the powerhouse teams will ultimately vie for the title, he scoffs at the notion that he isn’t a “contender.” After all, he qualified for the Chase just like the 15 other teams that comprise the first round.
“We’re contenders because we’re here,” Allmendinger said. “We’ve got a shot at it but I’m also not blind to the fact that if you put me against Jimmie Johnson, who the favorite would be. I understand.”
Adding insult to injury, several Las Vegas sport books didn’t even list Allmendinger and Almirola on their list of bets to win the 2014 Chase. Each of the top-14 drivers were all named, followed simply by “others.” Allmendinger says he laughed at the news but again understands the challenge that lies before him.
“I understand it,” Allmendinger said. “It’s part of it. Honestly, I relish this and I like being the underdog team. Tad (Geschickter) started this team in a barn in (1994) and we’ve always been an underdog. So I don’t take offense to it.
“I just kind of smile and say that I like being under the radar and hopefully we can go out, make some noise and make some guys mad by knocking them out of the Chase.”