FONTANA, Calif. – Outside of who caused "the wreck" at Daytona – Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Brian Vickers – the most asked question in NASCAR these days is why doesn't AJ Allmendinger have a full-time ride?
All the guy did late last season was post top 15 after top 15 and, in the process, beat his own teammates. Then he kicked off 2009 with a third-place finish in the Daytona 500.
Yet, come late April, if all things stay the same, Allmendinger will be out of a job.
It's the same uncertain situation he's been in since most of last season when his old team, Red Bull Racing, strung him along only to let him go in September. It's almost fitting that Allmendinger got his pink slip from Red Bull two days after posting a then-career-best ninth-place finish. Because it seems the better he does, the cloudier his future becomes.
After being replaced at Red Bull by an unproven rookie, Scott Speed, Allmendinger signed a five-race deal with the then-named Gillett Evernham Motorsports. In those five races, on average Allmendinger handily beat his teammates, Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler.
Then, over the offseason, GEM opted to let go of Sadler in favor of Allmendinger. But when Sadler threatened to sue over a breach of contract, GEM backtracked, leaving Allmendinger as the odd man out.
Now, following the merge of GEM and Petty Enterprises, Allmendinger has an eight-race contract with the newly named Richard Petty Motorsports, but nothing is certain (aside from the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July) beyond that.
Call him a victim of economic circumstances, because if sponsorship dollars were available, Allmendinger would certainly be signed for the entire season. The interesting question will come in late April when the eight-race deal runs out. What happens then if Allmendinger is sitting ahead of Kahne, Sadler or Reed Sorenson, his other teammate?
What if he's sitting ahead of all three?
"We'll figure out some way to keep him going," Richard Petty said Friday. "If he keeps doing what he's doing – and he's just run one race – but if he can run in the top eight or 10 every race for the next five or six races, he'll have a full-time ride."
It's a testament to Allmendinger's resilience that we're even having this discussion. By most measures he should be out of the sport entirely, just like Jacques Villeneuve and Dario Franchitti, the other more accomplished open wheelers – Allmendinger himself emigrated from Champ Car – who tried and failed to make the move to Sprint Cup racing.
But despite a mid-season benching last year (Strike 1), the pink slip (Strike 2) and the Sadler fiasco (Strike 3), Allmendinger is still in the game. And not only is he in the game, he's a factor.
Forced to race his way into the Daytona 500, he did, then wound up third. Forced to race his way into Sunday's Auto Club 500, he qualified eighth – fastest among the go or go homers.
In a six-month span, Allmendinger has gone from relative unknown to curiosity to budding cult phenomenon. In NASCAR circles, he's gained almost martyr status because he doesn't have a full-time ride, and no one can figure out why.
"My ultimate goal is to make them have to make that decision," Allmendinger said of his situation with RPM. "I don't want to be 30th in points and be the last guy on the team and make it an easy out.
"If the [sponsorship] money's not there, and they say, 'You know what, we don't have the money to run you,' then that's okay. But that's their decision, and I want to put the pressure on them to make that decision."
All things considered, no one has more on the line this weekend than Allmendinger. And come Sunday night, if he fares well, it's fair to say he will overtake the Earnhardt-Vickers discussion as the most talked about topic in the sport.