AJ Allmendinger excels in racing's marathons

NASCAR Wire Service Thursday, May 24 1489

The Coca-Cola 600 is NASCAR's longest race, but it's not the longest race AJ Allmendinger has driven -- not by a long shot.

Allmendinger, driver of the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, was part of the winning Daytona Prototype team in the 2012 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, a team that also included Oswaldo Negri, John Pew and Justin Wilson.

In fact, it was Allmendinger who brought the Ford-powered Riley home in the final segment of the motorsports marathon, giving owner Michael Shank his first victory in the crown jewel of Grand-Am racing.

All told, the team ran 761 laps on Daytona International Speedway's 3.56-mile road course, a total of 2,709.16 miles in a race that started on Jan. 28 and ended on Jan. 29.

On Sunday afternoon, Allmendinger will face a different sort of test, but one that's as demanding in its own way as the Rolex. Driving in the Coke 600 means close to five straight hours behind the wheel of a stock car. Like the Rolex 24, the 600 is both mentally and physically taxing -- but in a different way.

"To a certain extent, it's kind of the same thing," Allmendinger told the NASCAR Wire Service. "What's different, though, is obviously you're in the car continuously here in NASCAR, and the adrenaline's always flowing.

"What's tough about the Rolex is that you get all pumped up, and then you get out of the car and you rest for whatever time period. Then you get back in the car. That's tiring and exhausting in general -- just that start and stop. Here, at least, you're able to sit in the car and focus the whole time, and the adrenaline's flowing.

"But the way you go about driving the racecar is the same thing. You've got to take care of it, you can't overdo it early, and you can't abuse the racecar. So the process of how you drive the racecar is the same. How you're fatigued mentally and physically is a little bit different."

The approach to driving the car in both events, however, has changed over the past few decades. Though both races place a premium on preserving equipment, it's no longer enough to log laps and wait until the end of the race to make a move.

"The Rolex and the 600 are almost the same thing," Allmendinger said. "You've got to take care of the car, but you can't drive it at 80 percent. Nowadays, with the competition level so high, backing off is not 'I'm going to go 85 percent.' Backing off is like 98 percent.

"If you just ride around, you're going to get lapped. We have long green-flag runs now. You've always got to be on your game, and you can't really relax. Because of that, yeah, it makes it tiring, but it keeps you mentally in the game the whole time."

Both races pay dividends to drivers who are physically fit. Allmendinger learned an important lesson the first time he competed in the Rolex.

"My first year (2006), I was so jacked up I was bouncing off the walls, and by the end I was so tired and so out of it, I was drained," he said. "If you're not driving, and you're not doing something, just stay off your feet. You hydrate leading up to it, and between your stints you just stay off your feet, hydrate and rest."

That approach works for the 600, too. The race doesn't start until 6:17 p.m., so Allmendinger spends most of the day relaxing in his motor home and hydrating before fulfilling obligations for sponsor Shell/Pennzoil.

One of the benefits of being the only driver in the stock car is a custom-built seat molded to the driver's body. In the Rolex, the driver's seat is a compromise, and it's comfortable for no one.

"The tough thing about the Rolex car -- I think if you ask anybody -- is that the car doesn't fit anybody perfectly," said Allmendinger, who is 5-foot-6, 155 pounds. "You've got four guys in there. This year I had Oswaldo Negri, and we're about the same size, but our teammates John Pew and Justin Wilson were 6-1 and 6-4.

"So you're not comfortable in car, and you're cramping, and your back's sore. Immediately after the first stint you're in the car, it's just sore, and that's not going to go away the rest of the time you're in there."

In the Coke 600, the driver is control of his own car -- and, in theory, his own destiny -- for the entire race. In the Rolex, a driver must depend on the talent of his teammates, and that can be agonizing.

"The Rolex is tough, because you sit there and you watch the race on TV, or you listen to your racecar on the radio, and you're trusting your teammates to go out there and do the job," Allmendinger. "This year, when Mike Shank made the call to rest me, and I got out of the car at 5 a.m., and he said, 'You don't have to worry about it till noon,' you think, 'Seven hours! That's a great day of sleeping in general.'

"I lay there and had the radio on and just kept hearing, 'Clear, clear,' from the spotter as we were going by all the GT cars. I thought, 'Man, that's annoying. I've got to shut that off so I can go to sleep.' And I lay there for a minute of silence, and it was like, 'I can't do that -- I've got to listen.'

"That's what's tough about the Rolex. You never can relax mentally, even when you're not in the car. You're sitting there watching your car, hoping nothing happens to it."

This year, nothing happened, and Allmendinger was strong enough in his final stint to win the race by more than five seconds over the Starworks Motorsport Ford/Riley.

Allmendinger would like to see the Sunday's 600 go as smoothly, at least to the point of matching or improving the fifth-place result he posted last year.

And it's not too far-fetched to think that Allmendinger, who showed considerable speed in last Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race, might be victorious in the longest races of both Cup and Grand-Am.