AJ! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Looks like James Finch won't have any problem finding a new driver to replace Kurt Busch: both Regan Smith and AJ Allmendinger are here and looking.
Yep, making his first appearance during a NASCAR weekend since Daytona in July, when he was abruptly pulled out of the Roger Penske-Shell ride after flunking a drug test. Penske released Allmendinger August first. Last week NASCAR cleared Allmendinger to return to racing.
Now Allmendinger is looking for a ride. And he says he's talked briefly with Finch, who runs Hendrick-powered/Hendrick-engineered Chevys.
Last week Busch announced he was leaving Finch after Sunday's race here to start driving for Barney Visser, the Colorado furniture magnate, replacing Smith.
Otherwise Friday was remarkably unremarkable. Few fans in the stands, little action out on the track.
And crews hovering around a new, big NASCAR inspection machine, a veritable laser light show.
What the heck can NASCAR do to liven things up on Fridays at Talladega?
Denny Hamlin: "Maybe show some old races on the big screen....or run a 25-lap race for no points, just some money. That would be fun."
Maybe even qualifying heat races? That certainly brings in a crowd at Daytona in February.
"Between Daytona and Talladega, why we're here for three days I don't know," Hamlin said, echoing Kevin Harvick's blunt assessment of Friday as "Bored."
Hamlin: "Everyone is mentally checked out until Sunday.
"Don't ask us for any intelligent answers.
"You're not going to force guys to go out on the track and put their cars at risk. There's just too much work that goes into them.
"I think NASCAR will probably look at making these two-day shows, which they definitely should."
Lack of action on the track, though, didn't mean lack of news:
NASCAR's Montreal stop, an August staple for the Nationwide tour, will be dropped from the 2013 tour, because of disagreements between promoter Francois Dumontier and NASCAR's Brian France.
Dumontier has been insisting on a Sprint Cup race at his city-center Formula One road course, demanding a promise of a Cup race eventually.
However NASCAR has expressed little interest in that.
What exactly happened behind the scenes isn't clear. France was at the Montreal F1 event in June. The track is allowed by the city to run two motorsports events each season.
The Montreal course may not be that well laid out for stock cars, however the Nationwide tour put on some classic shows there. And NASCAR felt things were well in place for a 2013 return.
However Dumontier has insisted on a Cup event....which might seem a no-brainer for NASCAR, considering the picturesque track is in the heart of a the city of four million, a highly attractive market, with a classy international flavor.
Considering some of the tracks on the Cup tour currently, in less than major markets, giving up Montreal might appear a bad business decision by NASCAR.
Meanwhile, for Kevin Harvick, this year's title appears all but out of reach, after just three of the 10 playoff races. He's 46 points down; the most a driver can earn in one race is 48 points.
Harvick and old/new crew chief Gil Martin (dropped at the end of 2011 at Harvick's insistence, then hired back a few weeks ago, again at Harvick's request) did make the chase, but that's about all the team has managed to accomplish. Harvick's last tour win was more than a year ago; he's been about a 12th place finisher most of the season.
The key to Harvick's slump, however, may have been the loss late last year of competition director Scott Miller, who moved over to Michael Waltrip's team and has done great things there, almost single-handed turning around that operation, putting Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. in the chase and Mark Martin into winning contention in nearly every one of his starts.
Harvick says team owner Richard Childress is looking for a new competition director, to help reorganize things. What things? "I don't have time to tell you," Harvick says in some frustration.
Competition director? "I think that definitely would be the key piece to start at," Harvick says.
Filling Miller's spot on the roster "just didn't pan out the way we all thought it would. It became a little bit more disruptive than anticipated."
It's not a spot that's easy to fill.
"When you are looking for people of that magnitude," Harvick points out, "there are not a lot of them in the garage.
"Obviously the year has not gone as it has needed to go. It's been one of those years...As an organization we haven't done a very good job of having cars that are fast enough.
"We've definitely not been where we needed to be. But we got ourselves into the chase; we've got some decent finishes....
"You have to have something change momentum, to get where we need to be --- and we need to start this week.
"We haven't been able to do that all year. Every time you think you have something going right, it seems you have something else go wrong."
Of more immediate concern for Harvick -- engine temperatures here.
Harvick has been vocal in his opposition to NASCAR using engine temperatures, and the constant threat of an overheating engine blowing up, as a rule to limit two-car drafting.
And here Friday he raised the issue: "We are in a box, where we have to battle the heating issues of the car. I don't think anybody really likes how the race is dictated with the heating of the engine and cooling of the engine. Basically you have a box that you are in with a $100,000 piece."
In part Harvick is not pleased with that situation because he says rivals have an edge in engine cooling, particularly Ford.
"You have to manage your engine throughout the first three-quarters of the race. And a lot of times that means you don't want to get up in the pack. It's not because we don't want to race; it's because our engines won't run cool enough to stay up in the pack.
"Why do we restrict it with something that is so valuable and so easy to screw up?"