(Can Allmendinger perform as well as Kurt Busch did last year with two victories and a berth in the Chase?)
Now that the music has stopped and A.J. Allmendinger finds himself in the Penske Racing seat, the former open wheel star can enjoy his Christmas break knowing his 2012 plans.
But it won’t be too long before the honeymoon period will end and Allmendinger is forced to face the reality of the matter.
He needs to perform well next season for there to be a second season in the Penske stable.
Allmendinger didn’t ink a long-term contract to take the wheel of the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. Rather he’s locked into the coming year with no guarantees beyond 2012.
Roger Penske and team General Manager Tim Cindric are happy they got their man but made it clear what their expectations are going forward.
“Within every organization I think you set up gates and different areas that you have to get through from a performance perspective,” said Cindric. “We're not going to get into exactly what all those gates are, but his program is certainly set up for the long‑term, and if we realize our potential, I think he'll be our driver for more than one year.”
Allmendinger understands he’ll need to step up to fulfill the promise the organization sees and knows the 2012 effort will be important in not just his future with Penske but as a viable Sprint Cup Series driver.
“I think it gives me a great chance to make myself better,” he said. “I know for me I'm coming into a race team that's got a lot of momentum, an organization that's got a lot of momentum from a great solid year.
“And really when the season starts, you've just got to be solid to start the season. You can't put yourself in a hole. So I think that's going to be a big thing for us is just to try to gel together as quick as possible.”
Allmendinger will have a giant learning curve ahead of him moving into a new organization with a different manufacturer and a brand new crew chief in Todd Gordon, who makes his Sprint Cup debut after a successful Nationwide Series career with the team.
The question is can he adapt to so many changes in such a relatively short period of time and continue the momentum he had after finishing fifteenth in the standings last year as well as the performance of the No. 22 ride?
Allmendinger steps into a car that won twice last season and along with its sister ride driven by Brad Keselowski made the Chase.
The bar is set pretty high and Allmendinger will have his work cut out just trying to match what was accomplished in 2011.
That’s a pretty tall order considering the season’s first official green flag is less than two months away.
There’s a good chance should Allmendinger not win a race, failing to qualify for the playoffs or at the very least match his finishing in the standings last year this could be a one and done proposition.
Penske has shown patience in the past with others who have come through the organization most recently with David Stremme, who had a couple of years in the Sprint Cup program before finally being replaced by Keselowski.
Sam Hornish Jr. is back and waiting in the wings, ready to run for the Nationwide Series championship next season after making positive strides last year including his first career NASCAR win.
Penske’s relationship with Hornish dates back to their Indy Car days and the team owner’s loyalty with the former Indy 500 winner is very deep. A solid Nationwide campaign will be a definite help for Hornish to return to the Cup level, possibly at Allmendinger’s expense should 2012 not go as well as the team hopes.
Allmendinger has the talent to succeed and for the first time in his stock car career the resources and perhaps more importantly the stability of the organization as support.
But as this current volatile state of NASCAR has shown time and again during this hectic off-season the pressure to perform has never been greater.
In fact even reaching the ultimate of success is no guarantee for anyone’s future.
Just ask Darian Grubb.
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