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More Christmas Week surprises on the NASCAR trail....

  Popular, witty, edgy on the track...and now AJ Allmendinger is moving from the Richard Petty-Jack Roush Ford camp to the Roger Penske Dodge camp (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  Sponsorship chaos continues in the NASCAR world, and the latest twist, Best Buy's decision not to renew backing of Richard Petty's Ford operation, left driver AJ Allmendinger hanging...but not for long.
   Roger Penske, in the market for a driver to replace Kurt Busch, after their own split three weeks ago, has quickly signed Allmendinger to take the Dodge ride, which is backed by one of the biggest sponsors in the sport, Shell.

   Where that leaves Petty is unclear. He is now looking for both a driver and sponsor for one of the sport's most legendary rides, Number 43. And Daytona 500 testing in barely three weeks away.
   Marcos Ambrose, winner at Watkins Glen in August for Petty and Ford, is expected to remain on board. And Brian Moffitt, the CEO of the Petty team, says "Our plan remains to run a two-car team...
   "There are several very talented drivers who are still available and would embrace the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the legendary No. 43. We continue to move forward and are optimistic about the future of this race team."
   Among the drivers still on the sidelines are David Ragan, David Reutimann and Brian Vickers.
   Busch himself has also finally landed a ride for 2012, with Chevy's James Finch, who runs with equipment and engineering from Rick Hendrick.
    Busch, whose qualifications at the wheel have never been questioned, won this past season's lead-off Shootout at Daytona and one of the two Daytona 500 qualifiers, and September's Dover 400.
    Busch says he and Finch will run the full 36-race Sprint Cup tour. "And we're going to have fun doing it.
    "It's going to be old-school racing."
    The Busch-Finch pairing could be fun to watch, considering Finch's irreverent approach to stock car racing during his 20-some years in the sport. Finch's last tour win was with Brad Keselowski at Talladega two years ago
   "All we want to do is win," Finch says. "With Kurt Busch as our driver, we have a shot to win every week."
   For Allmendinger, the highly personable though still winless racer, the move to Penske is certainly quite a holiday gift. The Californian will be starting his sixth season on the Sprint Cup tour, and he's coming off his best season ever. He finished 15th in the standings (though his only top-five was at Charlotte in May's gas mileage event), and down the stretch he and crew chief Greg Erwin were solid and consistent.
   Still, without full sponsorship....


Team owner Roger Penske (R) has spent the past month looking for a new teammate to work with Brad Keselowski (L) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "One of the biggest things I've wanted in a race team is stability," Allmendinger says.  "...the things 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. Obviously the whole Penske organization has a ton of stability and great sponsors."
   Allmendinger, who just turned 30, says this ride may define his career, for better or worse: "I know where I'm at...and it's do or die. "
   What Penske expects isn't necessarily for Allmendinger to keep up the winning tradition that Busch has had; but then it was in part Busch's repeated blowups that led to that split, and Penske clearly would probably like a cooler, calmer, more sponsor-friendly driver.  And a driver who could be a closer teammate with Brad Keselowski....
   Tim Cindric, who runs Penske's stock car operation, pointed to Keselowski as one key in the decision to go with Allmendinger.
   "There were a lot of quality drivers there...and how do you take -- with Kurt's accolades, and as a past champion -- and compare what was there at this point in the season," Cendric said.
   "The word 'potential' continues to come up. 
    "AJ was someone we had talked to. We know him.  But he really wasn't somebody we considered until really almost the 11th hour.
    "When we sat down and looked at the guys available, there's nobody that has a better progression through his career.
    "And obviously we had to see if he was a good fit for our organization.  You can only do so much in a short period of time; you have to go with your gut.
    "Brad spent some time talking to him, to try and understand how they would work. AJ is really going to lean on Brad to understand what it takes to move into this organization and be successful; 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."


Another blow for Richard Petty: now he needs both a new major sponsor and new driver for his legendary 43 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Allmendinger admits the rush of events has had him a bit dazed.
   "I never expected when we left Homestead (Nov. 20th) that everything that has happened to get to this point would happen," Allmendinger said.
   Leaving Petty he says "was a tough decision. I love the race team, my guys over at Richard Petty Motorsports...and just felt we built such good chemistry over the last four to five months of the season.
   "But looking at an organization where I'm going, and the people...it made the decision a little bit easier.
   "It was just so quick I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around it. It's been a challenge the last couple of days.
   "The Best Buy deal might have been the final straw. 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." 

   Not just on Allmendinger's side, waiting to see how things would play out with Petty.
   Cendric concedes things have been chaotic at Penske's too, with the Busch furor and ultimate departure: "Since Homestead there have been a lot of things going on within the organization. To have a different crew chief and different driver going into next year when it really wasn't the plan starting the year."
   Picking Allmendinger was something of a surprise, though certainly a good move in retrospect. 
   "The past month or so we've been trying to understand what the landscape was," Cendric said. 
    And when the Petty sponsorship dilemma became clear this week, well Cendric and Penske were watching. "You never like to see a situation like what occurred there with the 43 program," Cendric said. "The Petty organization is top notch, working through some of their difficulties."
    Allmendinger, who drives at times with a bit of an edge, says "I don't know Brad that well yet.  We've always been cordial; I've never had a problem with him.
   "But the biggest thing for me is Brad is a true racer; he's come up from a racing family, he's worked hard to get to this point.
    "And it's pretty amazing how much he stepped up from the middle of the year to where he was at to the end of the year.
    "He leads this organization right now, so I've got to come in and learn from him. 
    "He's an easy guy to get along with, it seems...just like I feel like I am. I think the pairing is going to be really good.
     "At the same point I know there's a lot of pressure.  I'm not blind to the pressure with Shell Pennzoil....there's a lot of pressure to go out and perform."
   And even with a five-year record on the tour, it's still not clear just what Allmendinger can deliver.
    Cendric: "You're not going to replace Kurt Busch on the track with anybody out there right now that has those kind of statistics and those kind of numbers. At that point you really have to look at 'potential.'
    "We all came to the same conclusion -- there are a lot of talented people out there, really good guys...but this is the guy we need to go with." 

 AJ Allmendinger (L) and Petty teammate, now ex-teammate, Marcos Ambrose (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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