Robbie Loomis (R) and AJ Allmendinger (Photo: Autostock)
By Mike Mulhern
The man who has been key to the Evernham-Gillett-Petty deal.
And the man who lately appears a key behind Ford's rebound...this season with blue ovals on his stuff instead of the Dodge ram's head.
Indeed with all the talk about the resurgence of Roush operation, almost overlooked has been some of the heavy-duty lifting done this season by Loomis, who runs the 'hybrid' George Gillett-Richard Petty team just a few hundred yards up the road from the Roush shops.
It may be too late to keep ace Kasey Kahne in the Ford-Petty-Roush fold – he announced back in April he'd already signed a long-term contract with rival team opener Hendrick to eventually take over the Alan Gustafson ride that Mark Martin has currently. For next season Kahne, who has been impressive if erratic throughout this season, has been 'farmed out' to Jay Frye's Toyota team, while Martin finishes the final year of his Hendrick contract.
And it may be too late to keep Petty teammate Paul Menard in the fold too. He's headed to Richard Childress' for 2011.
So it was somewhat ironic that on the front row at Kansas last weekend were Kahne and Menard.
And the week before, at Dover, Del., it was AJ Allmendinger, in Petty's famous 43, surprising the field.
Elliott Sadler, the fourth member of the four-man Petty operation, hasn't been quite as successful...unless you count that hellacious crash at Pocono, that would have killed a man just a few years ago. NASCAR's car-of-tomorrow, for all its issues, certainly helped save Sadler's life, along with his HANS device.
Team owner and Team Ford boss Jack Roush is on a hot run, suddenly, and California's Auto Club Speedway, this week's stop, has been a good track for him and his teams over the year. (Photo: Autostock)
While the Petty guys have been hitting more than a few long balls this season, they're all still winless, though Kahne did run fourth at Sonoma, where he won for Petty last season, and had seconds at Michigan and Daytona during a hot summer run.
However the shape of Richard Petty Motorsports for 2011 is still a bit murky.
Allmendinger is back, with sponsor Best Buy, and Marcos Ambrose will be joining.
But the rest of the line up seems still up in the air....
What's made such a difference at RPM lately?
Well, there's certainly been incentive.
Loomis says one big point is that with Kahne announcing his departure so early, and then with Menard leaving too, the Petty camp has been under the gun to perform, to get and keep sponsors.
This has all come during a remarkably smooth transition from Dodges to Fords too...perhaps a plus for the COT, since all the chassis are virtually identical and the only changes are decals and engines. And the new Ford FR9 is doing just fine now....where the Petty engine room last year was in something of chaos, and not getting much support from fellow Dodge man Roger Penske.
"We've put a lot of effort towards this team to move forward into the 2011 season," Loomis says, pointing out that since none of the four made the chase, they call all experiment.
"We're using these final 10 races to stack our pennies, you might say, knowing the people that are going to be with us, and we've kind of lined them up to get behind the 43.
"We always had Kasey (who with crew chief Kenny Francis has been with the operation since the Ray Evernham days), and we all rode his deal. Kasey is obviously a great talent and a top performer for us.
"But what we discussed seven or eight weeks ago is that we have to figure out how to do this without Kasey, and without those guys who have been our leaders.
"We're really excited about Ambrose coming on. But the better baseline we can establish, the better we'll be."
Dr. Eric Warren, the team's technical director, has been handling much of the reorganization for 2011.
The operation may have relied on Kahne's considerable talents to help carry the show for too long, Loomis implied.
"Kasey has reached a level that he's good enough to go out there and give the feedback and direction he needs to get his car right."
Allmendinger, on the other hand, is still an up-and-comer. So Loomis says "we're just now trying to spend more time understanding what his needs are.
"We're trying to get him to articulate in a clearer manner to the crew chief what he needs, so that Mike Shiplett and the guys can make the right adjustments for him."
And the switch to Roush-Yates power has been a factor too (though last year's abrupt shutdown of the original Evernham-Petty-Gillett engine operation was none too pretty to watch).
While with Dodge, the other Dodge operation, Roger Penske's, wasn't quite the 'team' player, so Petty & Company were essentially on their own. (Of course Evernham was the first Dodge guy, remember, with Penske coming on later, so that whole deal wasn't really one big happy family to begin with.)
With Roush, on the other hand, the Petty guys have seemed more part of a team. Of course Loomis' guys have had a lot of input in improving the Roush chassis program too. So it's been a two-way street.
And Loomis has been key. Without Loomis in the picture, the Petty-Ford-Gillett to Roush thing almost certainly wouldn't have occurred.
"The switch to Ford has been great; we couldn't be happier with that," Loomis says. "Ford has given us a great amount of support, and our technical alliance with Roush, and the job Robbie Reiser (Roush's own shop boss) and those guys have done with our race cars has gone really well.
"It's been a mixing of cultures, I guess...and that's probably been the hardest part. I think it's gotten better and better as time goes on."
Loomis and his side of the Ford camp have yet to close the deal yet, though Kahne has been close several times, and Allmendinger has been impressive lately, and Menard seems to be a comer, with crew chief Slugger Labbe.
Loomis says he does see light at the end of this tunnel, despite the frustrations: "There are times I see light...but every time you think that, you wind up falling further behind.
"The difference between the guys winning and what we're doing right now is not very much. It's maybe one call, or one pit strategy, or the driver making one move different on the track.
"When you're not winning, it looks like the gap is huge between winning and not.
"But we're very close."
Robbie Loomis has been the King's right-hand man for years (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)