Penske Racing & AJ Allmendinger Press Conference
An Interview With:
MERRILL CAIN: Good afternoon everyone and thank you for joining us on this special Penske Racing media teleconference. I'm Merrill Cain with Penske Racing, and we were excited to make the announcement earlier today that AJ Allmendinger has joined Penske Racing and he will take over as driver of the No. 22 Shell‑Pennzoil Dodge Charger in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2012. It’s certainly an exciting announcement for AJ and for Penske Racing, and we're happy to be joined today by AJ as well as Penske Racing President, Tim Cindric. Thanks for joining us today.
We'll start out with just a general comment from both AJ and Tim. AJ, we'll start with you. Congratulations and welcome to Penske Racing.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: It's my pleasure. I'm looking forward to it. Thank you.
MERRILL CAIN: Coming off the best of your five seasons in the Cup Series where you finished 15th in the championship, driving the 43 car this year, this move to the No. 22 Shell‑Pennzoil Dodge presents a great career opportunity for you. Can you talk about joining the Penske team and how you plan to approach the 2012 season?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Yeah, I think for me with my background and where I've come from, Roger Penske and just Penske Corporation as a race team, as a business, the way he goes about just taking care of his guys, everything that goes along with that, it's been the pinnacle. I've always wanted to drive for Mr. Penske, so it's something that when the opportunity arose, I was ‑‑ I jumped right at it. It's something that I have always dreamed of, and I just feel like the way he runs his organization, the way he takes care of his people is first‑class and top‑notch. So that's something that I wanted to be a part of.
As you said, the last five years I feel like I've made good progression throughout each year, and this is hopefully going to allow me to take the next step of my career and really contend for race wins and try to make the Chase. That's the ultimate goal, and really contend for a championship. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity with Shell‑Pennzoil and AAA and all the sponsors that go along with it. To give me this chance has just been amazing. It's been quick. It's happened real fast, but I'm ready to go.
So going into next year, obviously we've got a short amount of time with how late this is all happening. I met (crew chief) Todd Gordon and everybody and just trying to make sure that I get to the shop as much as possible here over the next six weeks and get in the car and get ready for it. I'm ready to go.
MERRILL CAIN: Tim, I know the team is very excited to bring AJ on board for next year, and we know it's been a bit of a whirlwind over the past couple of weeks as the team has gone through this process. Can you just discuss how the opportunity with AJ developed and what you expect to see from the No. 22 team in 2012?
TIM CINDRIC: Well, obviously since Homestead, there's been a lot of things going on within the organization, To go through and have a different crew chief and a different driver going into next year when it really wasn't the plan starting the year. I think number one I appreciate the patience of everyone to get to this day because for Penske Racing and Roger, we certainly wanted to be sure that we felt like we made the right decision, and sometimes you need more time to try and understand what the landscape looks like.
That's really what we've been doing the past month or so is just trying to understand what the landscape was. We tried to do our due diligence and really understand where we were headed and what the different alternatives were, and you never like to see a situation like what occurred there with the 43 program. And the Petty organization is top‑notch and they've been first‑class and working through some of their difficulties. Obviously it's become some positives for our organization, but you never want to see it turn out that way. At the same time with the support of Shell-Pennzoil and Dodge and AAA and the rest of our partners as well as our employees, the patience that everybody has had to come to today is very much appreciated, and hopefully it pays off in 2012.
MERRILL CAIN: Now let's open it up and we'll take some questions.
Q. AJ talk about this a little bit. Since you've come to NASCAR you've never had the stability that this opportunity offers you. With Red Bull there was no plans, with RPM obviously the financial issues. How big of a relief is this for you personally?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, one of the biggest things that I've wanted in a race team is stability. Just going through the process and the things that we've had to go through to get to this point and the things that I've been up against basically my whole five years in the Sprint Cup Series, leads me to this point – to find an organization that has stability, and obviously the whole Penske organization has a ton of stability and great sponsors. Walking through the shop, just the way everything is laid out and presented is absolutely amazing and something I'd never seen before.
To get this opportunity is - I know where I'm at and the level of my career – and it's do or die. This is the next step to try to be one of those top Sprint Cup drivers, and that's what I want to do. I feel like this is going to be the best place to do it, and just the way this organization is laid out is absolutely amazing.
I'm excited. Walking through the shop for the first time and looking at some of the cars and meeting some of the people, just how positive everybody is at this race team is something that is – it just makes me feel good showing up to it.
And to have Mr. Penske, just his accolades and who he is as a person, to want me to drive his race cars just gives me more confidence than I've ever had. I'm really looking forward to kind of going through this process and getting to Daytona.
Q. AJ, can you talk about going from the moment where you were celebrating the holidays with Richard Petty Motorsports to now, some of the things you went through to get here? And Tim Cindric, can you talk about how much you think you have to make up or how far off this team is signing up a new crew chief and a driver, how quickly you think you have to pull it all together or what you think you might have or not leading into the start of the season?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Yeah, it's been a difficult process. I never expected when we left Homestead that everything that has happened to get to this point would happen. It was a tough decision. It wasn't something that for me it was easily made. I love the race team, my guys over at Richard Petty Motorsports, and just felt like we've built such good chemistry over the last four to five months of the season, to get to this point was a tough challenge.
But at the same point, looking at an organization and where I'm going and the people that surround it also made the decision a little bit easier because I knew that this was a great place to be.
I feel like it was just so quick that it happened, I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around it. But for me, I feel like there's no better place to be than here. As tough as the decision was to make, I'm happy to be here. Richard and everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports has been so kind and they've done so much for my career, and to this point helping to even get me over here was something that they were first‑class the whole time.
It's been a challenge in the last couple of days, but it's been really good, and I'm ready. I'm excited and I'm ready to go.
TIM CINDRIC: From the team's perspective, certainly any time your driver and your crew chief are different for the next year, you have a lot to put together in a very short amount of time, especially when it's almost the holidays. But I think the fortunate thing we have as an organization is the group that he's walking into and that he and Todd are going to work with have been within the organization five or six years together, the majority of them. So there's a very solid foundation there that's been here and that knows how we operate.
I think that AJ is really going to lean on Brad (Keselowski) to try and understand what it takes to move into this organization and be successful, and I think Brad is committed as a teammate to help him get up to speed as soon as possible because he's certainly shown that he's committed to making that happen. There's really no better place to do that than Daytona where you've got to work together from the beginning.
I think that, yeah, there's challenges there for sure, but I think there's a solid foundation and a lot of continuity that he's walking into.
Q. My question is for Tim: Why did you choose AJ over some of the other drivers that were available? What's the appeal that AJ Allmendinger brings to your race team?
TIM CINDRIC: That's a good question. There were a lot of quality drivers there, and in fairness, it's real hard to sit there and say, how do you take, with Kurt's accolades and a past champion, and compare what was there at this point in the season or this point in the year. That certainly is a challenge. And we had to look at – I guess the word potential is what continues to come up. I think that we considered virtually everybody that was out there and made sure that we did our due diligence to try and understand if there was anything in the landscape that we didn't know or that wasn't obvious.
AJ, he was someone that we had talked to over the years. Obviously he's been in the garage area and we know him. But he really wasn't somebody that we considered until really almost the 11th hour. I guess there was noise about the fact that they might not be able to make things work (at RPM). And when we sat down and looked at the guys that were available and AJ – the on‑track performance, if you look at it, there's nobody there that has a better progression through his career. When you look at the slope of the curve there with the way his statistics are, certainly no one has that type of, I guess, slope if you want to call it that.
And obviously we had to sit down and see if he was a good fit for our organization. You can only do so much of that over the phone and in meetings in a short period of time. But really you have to go with your gut and you have to go with what you think will create the right chemistry internally.
Brad spent some time talking to him to try and understand how they would work as far as teammates, and obviously all that is yet to be seen. But those are things that weighed into that decision.
Q. AJ, as far as working with Brad, how much do you know Brad, and do you guys have a friendship in the garage area?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I'll be honest, I don't know Brad that well yet. We've always been cordial and talked to each other at driver intros and kind of around the garage or in the bus lot just a little bit here and there, so I've never had a problem with him. But the biggest thing for me is I look at Brad and he's a true racer. He's come up from a racing family. He's worked hard to get to this point. And something that I saw, which was pretty amazing, was the middle of the year where he was at to the end of the year and how much him and this organization stepped up their game and really worked well together and made their race cars better.
That's kind of where I look at where I am right now. I need to make that next step, and Brad – and it is difficult in the middle of the year – did that, and became a championship contender really quick.
That’s the stuff that I'm going to lean on him and learn from and figure out what he did and the ways he went about getting to that point. And as Tim said, he leads this organization right now, so I've got to come in here and learn from him. He's an easy guy to get along with it seems, just like I feel like I am, and I think the pairing is going to be really good. I look forward to working with him, and the biggest thing was, as Tim said, I spoke to him a little bit about what he wanted as a teammate and things that he looks at this organization that are strong, where they need to be stronger and just how hard he works to get to that point.
I'm the same way. I'm going to be here every day that I can and work just as hard as he is to try to get myself to the next level and get the organization to the next level. I'm looking forward to it.
Q. AJ, you hit on this a little bit at the very beginning talking about kind of having the stability with this team, but what does this do for you in terms of perhaps the confidence you have that a Roger Penske has hired you and the fact that this is such a strong organization that perhaps for the first time in your NASCAR career you can just go out there and let's see if you're ready to win? I'm assuming you probably feel like you probably are. Can you talk about that?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Yeah, to have Mr. Penske personally want you to drive his race car is a thing that for me gives me a lot of confidence. It's the same thing as when Richard Petty asked me to come drive his car. It gives you a lot of confidence when you have somebody with that background and with the accolades and everything that they've went through in their lives to make their organizations where they're at. It gives me a lot of confidence.
But at the same point I know there's a lot of pressure there. I'm not blind to the pressure with Shell‑Pennzoil and with the organization and what they're used to, having their ideas about winning. I know there's a lot of pressure there to go out there and perform, but for me if I didn't feel like I could do that I'd just be wasting everybody's time and then I wouldn't be here. I feel like I'm at that level to take that next step and be a winner and be a championship contender, and obviously this organization showed that this year that they can do that.
For me it's something that – there’s a lot of confidence, but I know the pressure is there, and I'm ready to take it on. This is going to be my best chance I've ever had in the Sprint Cup Series to go out there and perform, and I'm ready to do that.
Q. You guys have made a couple references to how quick this all happened. Can you detail exactly how quick it did happen as far as when was the first time you talked or made contact or anything like that?
TIM CINDRIC: I'd have to go back and try and understand the past 48 hours to give you a detailed minute by minute. From A.J.'s perspective, it's certainly been a situation in which he knew that a lot of things were really centered around whether or not his existing team could put a program together. You know, as far as putting a deal together, that's all transpired in the last 24 hours at the most. The rest of it was just the same noise that you guys have heard and him really trying to find out what their direction was within the 43 program. All that happened in a very short period of time.
Q. And then I understand this is a one‑year deal. What are the expectations as far as whether the relationship would continue? Does AJ need to make the Chase or need to win races or anything like that that you feel you need to see from him to keep going in 2013?
TIM CINDRIC: I'm not sure where you heard it was a one‑year deal or who said that. But from our perspective, any of these programs as we look at them – this is a performance business. Within every organization I think you set up gates and different areas that you have to get through from a performance perspective. As AJ said, there's a lot of things that really weigh into that decision, and for us we want nothing more than to go forward on a long‑term basis and have the two guys we have drive for us for a long time.
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. We just need to continue to build on the successes we had before and ensure that we can give he and Brad the kind of equipment that they need to run up front, and I think the rest of it will take care of itself.
Q. AJ, what I want to find out from you is you may not have even thought of this yet, but what it's going to be like pulling into Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you're the driver of a Penske Dodge?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Yeah, I mean, it's ‑‑ I'll be honest, pulling into any racetrack driving a Penske Dodge, I'm going to be pretty excited about it. Obviously Indy has got a rich history of Mr. Penske winning a lot of races there. That's going to be pretty special when we get to that point, but I've got plenty of races before that to be smiling every time I pull into the racetrack.
I'm ready to get to Daytona right now. We've got a lot of hard work over the next six weeks to go out there, and obviously with the test coming up here in a couple weeks, it's so quick. So we've got a lot of things to work on and figure out and build on before we get to Daytona.
But I'm going to be smiling showing up to the racetrack every weekend. This is what I love to do, and if I wasn't smiling, I shouldn't be driving race cars. It's going to be pretty special, and to have Mr. Penske just around the racetrack talking to me, just being able to be around him, like I said, for me it's more of an honor to drive for him. I love the history of racing in general, and obviously Mr. Penske has a rich history in racing. It's going to be just fun being at the racetrack, being a part of his organization, and being around him more than anything. That's something I really look forward to.
Q. And since this is so late in the going, there's a lot you need to do between you and the start of the season. Can you maybe tell fans what's on your plate in terms of behind‑the‑scenes stuff that goes on?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Well, I just came to the shop for the first time, and first things first is not get lost in the shop. The thing is huge. I'm going to need a map to figure out even where to pull into the place. That's going to be the first thing. Then make sure that I have my seats set in the race car. That's always a big thing for a race car driver.
Ultimately there's a lot, and there's a lot of stuff that we're not going to get done before the start of the season. I'm going to have to learn everybody's name and get fitted in the race cars, but the most important thing for me right now is just get comfortable in the cars when we go test them, to really learn Todd, and with him being new to the Cup Series and us working together and not having a lot of time, especially with the holiday season. Then just trying to get my core group of guys that I'm going to be working with and try to get to know them and just become friends with them. Because I think the biggest thing I look at, I'm a guy that wants to be friends with all my crew guys, the guys around me, the race team. I feel like if we can become close like that it's only going to make the race team stronger.
I think those are the initial things going into the test and going into Daytona we need to work on. But it's going to be a long process. We're not going to be where we want to be going into Daytona because it's such a short process we've got to go through to get there. But it's going to be fun, though. That's what I really look at. It's going to be a lot of fun, and that's what I'm excited about.
Q. AJ, did you have any time to talk to Todd Gordon yet, and have you guys kind of shared philosophies of racing?
I know that when it comes to talent level, he's going to be a great guy to work with. But yeah, I mean, we've just had small talks. I'm going to be in the shop tomorrow before everybody takes off and try to spend a full day with him and start going over things. The way I look at it is, both race cars here this past year have ran really well, so I'm not coming in with any preconceived idea what I want in the race car. I'm there to listen, kind of get my ideas of what I feel and what I like, but just try to fit into the system, and that's what I'm going to try to do.
The biggest thing is just learning Todd and trying to build a relationship with him as quickly as possible. We started that process a little bit today. We'll do a lot more of that tomorrow, and then as the season starts, with the new year, I'll be in here a lot, and that will be the process.
Q. For Tim, will Todd and AJ and the 22 car have the opportunity to test before the season starts, or is Daytona just kind of jumping into the deep end?
TIM CINDRIC: Daytona for sure. Obviously there's an open test coming up there in January that you guys all know is on the calendar. But beyond that, really I think tomorrow is the first day for the two of them to sit down and try and figure out where they want to go. It's really an open book for them to decide where to spend our time and our resource to get him prepared for whatever he feels like his weaknesses are going into the first race.
Q. And did AJ's open-wheel background have any influence on your final decision?
TIM CINDRIC: I guess the influence it had is he's a proven winner. Although not in the Cup Series, it takes a certain process, it takes a certain edge, it takes a certain level of confidence to have the accolades that he had all the way from the beginning of his open-wheel career through to the point where he went stock car racing.
Each one of these guys that we talked to or we looked at, we considered all their different situations, and really it was amazing his process from getting out of the open-wheel cars or the Champ Car into a truck and right into the Sprint Cup program and just bypassing Nationwide. All across the board I think he said he had about 50 laps of time in a stock car when he had to go run the Daytona 500.
When you take all those things into consideration, for us, we know that he's somebody that knows how to win, and I guess that's the biggest thing that that whole open-wheel background had.
Q. Tim, feel free to name names if you'd like, or if you don't that's okay. How long was your short list of candidates?
TIM CINDRIC: I think you guys had them all picked. We considered everybody. There were a lot of calls and a lot of people that deserved a chance, put it that way. But we really had to look at who was the right one for the situation that we have. I'm a big believer in chemistry and trying to find the right chemistry, and I think that's what Brad has found with Paul. We need to continue to try and figure out how to make that work internally.
But I think that as far as the list, it was quite long, and we sat down internally and just looked to make sure we weren't missing anything.
Q. AJ, you mentioned how you didn't leave Homestead expecting to leave Richard Petty Motorsports. When was the moment you realized you weren't going to be back with them? Was it the Best Buy deal falling through or was there another point where you began to realize your next year was not going to be with them?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Well, I think it's been really quick. As Tim said, it's really only been a few days that it's happened, and obviously the Best Buy deal at RPM was something that it might have been the final straw at that point. But honestly, it really kind of – when the rumors all started last week about Kurt, that kind of threw like a red flag up in my mind about what was happening. But just like anything, they're rumors, and it really wasn't until the last few days that this has all kind of come to a head and really had a chance of happening.
As I said, I mean, two weeks ago – there was no thought in my mind. There was no difference. It's really just been a few‑day process.
Q. Tim, Penske Racing kind of as a whole, in the second half of the season it looked like the team perhaps was performing at an all‑time best in terms of being competitive week to week. Both drivers had a chance to win every week. Was that the feeling on the inside, that you guys were getting very, very close to where you wanted to be?
TIM CINDRIC: I think you hit it exactly on the head. And regardless of what type of racing it is, when you can show up at the racetrack and the guys feel like they have a chance to win that week, and Roger talks about it all the time, he says, as long as I feel like I'm competitive and I can show up at the racetrack thinking one of my cars might win today, that's what drives us.
You're right. Midway through the season, from that point on, Brad and Kurt really built off of each other, and Steve (Addington) and Paul (Wolfe) were putting cars together, and the guys were really clicking as far as showing up at the racetrack and us thinking that we had a chance to qualify up front and we had a chance to win the race. And really that's the definition of, in our minds, when you think you start to have it right, and then it just becomes a question of who executes the best at that point in time.
Q. Tim, is the expectation that AJ will be able to come right in and pick up where the team left off? Or are you expecting a period of transition?
TIM CINDRIC: Well, I think you have to be realistic, and I think we have to hit singles in the beginning before we can worry about hitting the doubles and triples and the home runs. There's no, I guess, preconceived notion that we're going to walk into this thing and just hit the ground running. We're going to have to work toward it. If that happens, great, but I think we have to be realistic in the fact that, as I said before, we're replacing a world‑class driver, and we're trying to figure out how we get to that next level. AJ said it himself; he wants to be somebody that's a Chase contender and a championship contender, but before you can contend for a championship you have to be in the Chase. I think we have to set our goals realistically to make sure we're within striking distance the first dozen races or so and then start to build on the various relationships that will occur at that point in time.
I think we have to take a step at a time. Basically we're going to have to walk here a little bit before we run.
Q. AJ how does this opportunity make you better, and how can you make this team better? Of your experiences in the past five years, what do you take into this and how do you make this organization better and showcase your skills even more?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I think it gives me a great chance to make myself better. It's a great organization, and the cars were fast middle of the ‑‑ beginning of the year on really and just kept getting better it seemed like. 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. So I feel like the race cars are going to be pretty good. It's more about myself and Todd and the race team gelling, and the quicker we can do that, the better we can be early on.
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.
And for myself to try to make the organization better, I think it's just about just fitting in, about coming in with a good attitude and just being a part of the process and trying to help the race team get better by doing that and just trying to fit in. And I think this is an organization that is all about being humble and being loyal and everybody kind of working together to reach the same process, which is to go win races.
I feel like maybe I bring a couple of different ideas in with what I've gone through to get to this point and what I've learned from other race teams and other crew chiefs, things like that. But ultimately I think the best way to make this organization better is to work well with Brad, have two teammates that are really happy working together and just really work together with the team to reach the pinnacle, and that's win races. If we can do that, I don't see why I can't come in and help make the team better.
Q. AJ, I talked to you at the PRI trade show in Orlando on December 3rd and you mentioned in the last couple weeks you didn't have any idea you were about to have a sponsor go and a new job arrive. Your confidence level is right back up there. Could you kind of talk about the roller coaster that you kind of went through in the last 17 days?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: It wasn't really the last 17 days, it was more the last couple of days. That was something that as we spoke there at the PRI show, we were talking about going into 2012 and working to make the 43 a lot better and working with Greg Erwin. It was really the last couple of days that this has kind of occurred. For me it's easy to keep my confidence when Mr. Penske wants you to drive his race cars and come to his organization. I think that makes ‑‑ for me at least it makes myself be able to look in the mirror and wake up in the morning and feel confident knowing that such a guy like Mr. Penske and everything that he's had as race teams and all the great drivers that he's ever had in his lifetime basically, to have him come to me and say, hey, I want you to drive my race car, that gives me all the confidence I need right there. He knows talent when he sees it, and if he thinks I have enough talent to be a part of his organization, that's all I need right there.
Q. And as far as your confidence goes, over the past years, you seemed to overcome a lot of learning curves and really kind of move up. How has that affected you?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Well, I mean, I've had to go through a lot to stay in the sport, so when something like this happened over the last few days, it's something that I haven't ever experienced. It's something that for me it's natural. For me every year has come up to where going into the off‑season we've had to work hard to find a ride or keep a ride or figure out what's going to happen. It's just the nature of this sport; sometimes it can be cruel, but in the end, it's the attitude I've always had. You can either do two things with it: You can keep going and work harder to stay in the sport or you can just give up, and I'm a guy that's never going to give up. It's almost ‑‑ the stuff that's happened over the last five years, it doesn't even surprise me anymore.
It was no surprise, and I know I have good people working around me. Something for me, it didn't affect me like it did over the last couple of years. I've kind of gotten used to it, and like I said, the biggest deal was to have Mr. Penske call you and say, hey, I'd like you to be part of this organization. That makes it a lot easier just to not stress over it.
Q. Tim, we haven't really mentioned Shell‑Pennzoil here. What do they want as a sponsor after what they just went through? Did AJ have an interview with them? AJ didn't really talk about them but neither did you, Tim. Did they want something specific for a driver and what are they thoughts and did they interview AJ?
TIM CINDRIC: That's a good question. It's been difficult in the way it's all come about because obviously until he came onto the scene there was a bit different process that was going through. Thorough isn't the right word, but the amazing thing with the Shell‑Pennzoil relationship is that that partnership in one year has ‑‑ I guess there's so much trust that's developed, and obviously we've gone through the highs and we've gone through the lows together, and when it came down to this decision, obviously it had to be made in a pretty quick fashion once AJ became available.
So it was really a matter of phone calls and trust and us sitting down with them really talking about, okay, here's who we've talked to, here's how we've approached it, here's what we recommend, and at the end of the day, they want someone that's going to represent them in the winner's circle and someone that's going to represent them away from the racetrack in the right ways.
We had to sit down and think real hard about how to really think about what that all means, because again, you're not going to replace Kurt Busch on the racetrack with anybody out there right now that has those kind of statistics and those kind of numbers. It's just not going to happen. At that point in time you really have to look at where the potential lies, and that potential has to be engaging on and off the racetrack and that potential has to be somebody that's really proved that they can win to whatever extent that their career has put it.
We've had a chance to talk with some of the representatives there, but not nearly to the extent that you would hope at this point in time when you're coming to this kind of decision. So there's a bit of faith there on both sides that we've done the right things and that it works out the right way, because the last thing any of us want is to be sitting here at the end of next year talking about who the driver of the 22 is going to be. We really needed to look at it and ensure we made the right choice.
I think the thing is that sitting here, we all came to the same conclusion: That there's a lot of talented people out there, a lot of really good guys, but this is the guy we need to go with.
MERRILL CAIN: That'll wrap up today's Penske Racing media teleconference. Thanks everybody and enjoy your holidays.
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