In The Pits: Allmendinger and Gordon finish strong

Published 5:41 pm Monday, September 29, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ It would have been so easy for an ailing Jeff Gordon or an unemployed AJ Allmendinger to take a leisurely Sunday drive around Kansas Speedway.

But Gordon is racing for a championship, Allmendinger is racing for a job and simply coasting to the checkered flag isn’t an option for either.

With so much on the line, both delivered solid performances — Gordon was fourth, Allmendinger was a career-best ninth — that ultimately could define their seasons.

“I guess I need to be sick more often,” Gordon quipped. “That was a good run and a good car. I know if I had been healthy, I would have gotten more out of it.”

He could always use more. Gordon is winless this season, and his last victory was almost a year ago.

Gordon’s most certainly not out of the title hunt. Should he charge to the front and end up contending, he’ll likely look back at Kansas as the race that kept his chances alive. He left Kansas ranked sixth in the standings and trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 143 points.

He was under the weather all weekend and felt so ill on race day that Hendrick Motorsports asked Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski to be on standby in case the four-time series champion couldn’t make it to the finish line.

But climbing out of the car isn’t Gordon’s style.

“When you’ve got a car and a team that’s as good as this one, you can’t let somebody else get in there and drive it,” he said.

Keeping his No. 24 team focused is of utmost importance to Gordon, who has just seven races left to avoid his first winless season since his 1993 rookie campaign. He’s coming off an intense work of week — two days testing the car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and pit practice with the crew — and heading into a stretch of schedule that suits him. Last season, Gordon won back-to-back races at Talladega and Charlotte, site of the next two events.

So powering through to his fourth-place finish was just what the entire team needed.

“I owe a lot to these guys. They stuck it out all weekend long when I was not feeling good and was pretty ill as far as my mood,” he said. “That’s the thing about a great team — when one team member is down, other guys rally and pick up the pace, and that’s what they did with me. I’m very thankful for that.”

Allmendinger, meanwhile, went into the weekend believing it was his final race with Red Bull Racing. He’s not returning to the team next year and had hoped to move into a new ride before this season ends.

But he’s yet to put together a deal, and Red Bull officials have been in a bit of limbo as Allmendinger plans the last two months of his season. He made it clear Sunday that he’ll race hard, even as a lame duck driver.

“You get a little chip on your shoulder when you’re told you’re not going to be back here next year,” he said. “So I had to go out there and prove something to some team owners and hopefully they see what kind of character I have. I’m not going to give up. I’m going to keep fighting.”

Finishes such as Sunday’s — the second top-10 in Allmendinger’s 38 career Cup starts — will be critical for Allmendinger to prove he deserves to be in the Cup Series. He left a successful career in the now-defunct Champ Car Series for NASCAR, a difficult switch for the 26-year-old.

Red Bull wasn’t competitive last season, and Allmendinger and teammate Brian Vickers struggled to make races. Every start he missed cost Allmendinger seat time he needed to adapt, and Red Bull failed to find other opportunities that might have eased his transition.

Now Scott Speed, a longtime Red Bull athlete, is back in the United States on the fast-track for a Cup ride after a failed stint in Formula One.

Still, Allmendinger is trying to squeeze everything he can out of his final few days with Red Bull.

“When I kind of got let go from my Champ Car ride, I didn’t want to be there anymore. I wanted to get a new start,” he said. “Here, I wanted to stay. I love these guys. It’s a great team. They’re going to do a lot of great things.

“I’ve shown before I can go through some adversity, keep fighting and come out on the other side a lot better.”