The 2000 champion is missing the first race of his full-time career this weekend, as his JTG Daugherty team continues to search for ways to remedy a program that currently sits 30th in owners points. The organization is putting Allmendinger into its No. 47 car for several races as a comparative measure, which for Labonte means the end of the third-longest consecutive race streak in the sport's history.
Kentucky will mark the first race without Labonte since the 1992 season finale at Atlanta, before the Texan landed his first full-time ride with Bill Davis for the 1993 campaign. The only longer consecutive race streaks are Ricky Rudd's all-time mark of 788, and Jeff Gordon's current active record of 705. Although Allmendinger also drove the No. 47 car two weeks ago at Michigan, Labonte was able to land a ride in Phoenix Racing's No. 51 to keep his streak alive.
Not so at Kentucky. While some fans have reacted angrily to the measure, Allmendinger cautions that he's trying to make the program better, and that he also knows from personal experience what it's like to be on the other side.
"It's not easy," he said Friday. "There are the emotions of disappointment, and you wish you were in the car. That's just natural. In this day and age, it's so tough, because people want to put up 'AJ versus Bobby,' or 'AJ's taking Bobby's ride.' That's not what it's about. Bobby Labonte has been such a great ambassador to this sport over the last 20 years, and obviously he's a champion. So those feelings are just natural. You should have them. There's nothing wrong with them."
He knows, because he's had them himself. In 2008, Allmendinger was a second-year NASCAR driver for a struggling Red Bull team. He failed to qualify for the Daytona 500. Then he failed to make the next event at Auto Club. Then he failed to make the next event at Las Vegas. So for the following race at Atlanta, team management put veteran Mike Skinner in the car. He remained there for five races, trying to help bring the program up to speed while Allmendinger watched.
"We're race car drivers. Being out of a race car, we don't like that," Allmendinger said. "And when you see somebody else in your race car, it's not a good feeling. That's the natural feeling. You should be disappointed in that and not be happy about it. But for me, it at least gave me a chance to step out and watch from outside and say, 'OK, it's something I can learn from, and I need to learn from.' And it truly helped me at that point.
"If I'm saying the same thing Bobby is, and in a way I kind of am, that only helps what he's been saying. So there's good and bad to both. The race car driver hates it, but it can play out to where it helps the team, it helps the other person, it helps me. But what makes it tough is obviously, Bobby's role in NASCAR for the last several years has been huge to this sport. He's helped grow the sport. So I understand it. All I can do is go out and do the best job possible. I understand the people that aren't happy with it, and at the same point, I can't control that. I just control myself, and just like life right now, try to live day to day."
When Allmendinger finally returned to his Red Bull car in 2008, he didn't just make the race at Talladega, he qualified fourth. Although race results came more slowly, he gradually crept into the top 20, and at Indianapolis scored his first career top-10. Now he's playing the Skinner role at JTG Daugherty, offering a second opinion that may help the team find where the real problems lie. Friday's practice sessions were something of a struggle, with Allmendinger placing 30th and 31st on the speed chart.
"Obviously, you go out there and you try to have the best finish possible," he said. "In the end, that's what everybody looks at, and that's what you're based on. But for me, all I can do is give my best feedback. Come in here and say, 'OK, this is what I think.' And maybe it's the same as what Bobby thinks. Or maybe it's different. It might be different than what a Jimmie Johnson would feel. But for me, all I can do is go out there and give my best effort, give all the feedback that I can -- the good, the bad, what I feel is positive, what I feel we need to work on as a race team in general. And hopefully for me, that's what helps the race team get better, no matter who's in the car from here on out."
Allmendinger is also likely to drive for JTG Daugherty at Watkins Glen, and in two other races where the team needs sponsorship. He'll compete for Phoenix Racing next weekend at Daytona, when Labonte will be back in the No. 47. Although the two haven't spoken since Michigan, Allmendinger said Labonte was one of several drivers who was "very helpful" to the former open-wheeler when he returned to NASCAR after a failed drug test last summer.
He can also relate to trying to diagnose problems with a single-car team, and second-guessing whether what you're feeling is right or wrong. "You kind of get lost in your own thoughts," Allmendinger said. "Is this what I'm supposed to be feeling, or should it be different? Sometimes you don't know." But he knows one thing -- he can't even comprehend the idea of 704 consecutive starts.
"Hell, man, I'm just trying to get week to week," Allmendinger said with a smile. "Seven hundred and four seems like an eternity."
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