SB Nation's driver interview series is back in 2011 – with 12 all new questions. Up next is Richard Petty Motorsports driver AJ Allmendinger. We spoke with Allmendinger at Las Vegas.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
AJA: David Reutimann. He was in a similar situation when we both came in as rookies – a brand new team – and he's always done a good job. Even the first year when (Michael Waltrip Racing) was struggling like Red Bull did, I felt like he really kept that team afloat.
I wouldn't say he's a quiet guy, but he just flies under the radar all the time. He's fast, but I think overall, nobody ever talks about him because he's under the radar. But I can see it on the racetrack and when I interact with him – I think he's really good.
SBN: Which non-win in your career bugs you the most?
AJA: Man, I don't know. These Cup races are so tough. At Dover last year, I felt like we had an opportunity, and no fault of our own, a flat tire took us out of it. Over the last six months of the season last year and going into this year, I feel like we've been really strong and put ourselves in contention to at least be up front and be there. But Dover was our best shot and it slipped away – even though it was no fault of our own, like I said.
SBN: If you could pick any teammates aside from your current one – manufacturer and sponsor conflicts aside – who would you pick?
AJA: For me, going back to David Reutimann, he's a guy I get along well with in here. He's really good, and there's a lot of stuff I could learn from him. And I think I could use Mark Martin's experience – although Mark has helped me a lot as it is. He's always talking to me. I feel like Mark and I, when we're on the racetrack, we trust each other where we can race hard but be clean.
Mark has got so much experience; I'm still fairly new at this. And he's somebody that if I had him at my disposal right then and there where I could go talk to him, it would be really cool.
So I'd pick two guys, and it would be a three-car team: It would be Reutimann, myself and Mark Martin.
SBN: What driver did you most want to be like when you were growing up?
AJA: Jeff Gordon was somebody I watched when I was growing up – and it wasn't Jeff Gordon of stock-car racing. It was Jeff Gordon of Saturday Night Thunder, Thursday Night Thunder, the midgets and sprint cars. That's what I grew up watching and grew up around – it's actually kind of surprising I never got into it.
My dad raced local dirt tracks in California, midget stuff and different types of dirt cars. I was either at a dirt track with my dad or we'd be at a World of Outlaws event, the sprint car races. I used to love Thursday Night Thunder. You'd get home from school, get your homework all done and get excited to watch it.
So watching Jeff Gordon kick everybody's ass when he was in sprint car racing was pretty cool. When he came into stock-car racing, I was a big fan of his – but I was a sprint car guy first.
SBN: What do you want your retirement story to say about you someday?
AJA: Obviously, you want to have race wins and championships in there – everybody does. That's something hopefully we can work toward. But for me, I'd want people to say I gave everything I had every time I was in a race car. I never laid down. Good or bad, frustration or happiness, I drove every lap I run like it's my last lap – just trying to get everything I can out of it. You never know when it will be.
I'd want to have people know that and know I was passionate about it and that I cared about the race team – if I make a mistake and make these (crew) guys work more, it frustrates me to no end. I'd just want it to say I gave everything I had.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape from the track you've made?
AJA: I think of my first time at Pocono, in '07. I got the full experience of what it was like at a Sprint Cup race trying to get out. Leaving Pocono, I remember we were in line following a couple people because I had no clue where I was going. You're out in the middle of B.F.E. and you're trying to figure out how to get back to the airport that's 45 minutes away.
So I'm trying to follow these people to the airport, and we come through the one gate that's open and it's like four-wide and we're bouncing off each other trying to get to the road. And I'm like, 'Holy shit! This is worse than when I was on the racetrack today!' People were just running into each other just trying to get out of the track. I remember thinking, 'So this is what it's like trying to leave these races.'
The thing is, I'm scared as hell of helicopters, so I won't helicopter out of a race. But it was nuts. That was pretty memorable. When I got to the airport, I had marks all down both sides of my car and I was like, 'How am I going to explain this to the rental car company?'
SBN: Who's a famous person you'd like to meet that you haven't met yet?
AJA: Charlie Sheen. Nah, I'm just kidding! Maybe some of his goddesses? No? (laughs) I'm kidding, I'm kidding. My PR guy is going to have a heart attack over there.
In reality, I love meeting people who were the best at what they did. People who were at the top of their game, and you can't argue with it. So a guy like Michael Jordan – if I could sit down and talk to him. I got to meet Brett Favre, and that was my sporting hero growing up. Even meeting Ricky Carmichael and having him come over to NASCAR – there's no doubt he was the best at his sport, and being able to talk to him about that. To me, that's really cool.
But if I had to pick one I haven't met, Jordan would be really cool. He seems like a guy who's pretty laid back but obviously has done a lot in life. I'd love to go play a round of golf with him.
SBN: Last year, there were two different types of seasons: Jamie McMurray won some major races but didn't make the Chase, and Jeff Gordon didn't win any races but contended for the championship. Which would you rather have?
AJA: Man, that's tough. To win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard would be pretty tough to turn down. But for me, I'd like to run strong all year. And you know, McMurray barely missed the Chase – so it wasn't like it was a bad year.
I want to win this year. We have to win this year. That's something that's critical for this season. And we're at the point now where we can do it. We have the capability and the potential to do it, we just have to learn how to do it.
So winning is a big deal. But to be strong all year and be in contention and make the Chase and be a guy who they say is a championship contender, that's hard to turn down. And I think I'd rather have that.
I'd take both though, if that's an option.
SBN: If you could switch lives with an athlete from a different sport – bodies and all – who would you switch with?
AJA: Well, there's a lot of people I'd like to switch bankrolls with, I know that. You know, being a top quarterback in the NFL would be pretty amazing – when Brett Favre played, or Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady. I wouldn't want to feel their bodies or their pain after a game, be iced down and all the stuff they have to go through.
But to lead an NFL team – to hike a ball and basically know you've got 1.2 seconds before you get decapitated, with Ray Lewis coming at you, and be able to pick apart defenses – to me is pretty amazing. I'd love to be one of those guys.
SBN: How different is your personality inside the car compared to outside of it?
AJA: It's pretty much the same, if you ask the guys. I'm pretty animated, talk a lot. I would say outside the car, I'm a little more calm than when I'm sitting in the race car – but we're working on that. That's part of the process of getting better. But honestly, what you see is what you get.
SBN: If you could take a year away from the sport and go do whatever you wanted and come back knowing you had a job, would you want to do it?
AJA: Hell no. Hell no. This is what my life is all about. I don't want to do anything else. I get bored; I don't do vacations. I can't stand trying to lie out on the beach for three days. It annoys the shit out of me. Maybe a day and a half. I can drink at home if I want to. I just love racing.
The offseason is a perfect example. You get to the end of the season and you're like, 'Thank God.' Then I get through the first week of the offseason and I'm like, 'This sucks! I want to race again.' My whole off-weekends, I race go-karts (that's what he did in the recent off-week). I get to golf during the week already. So there's not much else to do. There's no way I'd want to take time off.
SBN: Where does your motivation to win come from? Personal pride? For your team?
AJA: I fear failure. I fear failure more than I'm excited about winning. If I win a race, I can be excited for a day – and then I'm scared to go lose the next one. I don't know where it comes from.
It might come from how much my parents sacrificed and did everything they could for my career. They mortgaged their house three times; they're not rich people. My dad is a carpet-layer. My mom is a nurse. They never put the pressure on me that I had to race, but they gave me every opportunity that as long as I didn't mess up outside of home or school, they'd do everything they could.
But I think it's just my nature. I hate failing. Whatever I do, I don't like to fail – but more than that, I'm scared of it. That goes along with going out there and trying to win for Best Buy and win for these guys who bust their ass and put their effort into the car.
I'm scared of failing for them and having them be disappointed. That's where it comes from.
SBN: Let's say you're going to win the championship.
SBN: Would you rather do it on the last turn of the last lap at Homestead, or would you rather have it clinched by the time you get to the track?
AJA: I'd love to clinch it before I get there. (Laughs) I know that's boring to the fans, but I think a driver would be lying if he said he wouldn't want it clinched before he showed up. I've clinched championships before the season-ender, and it's a lot more comfortable going to the last race.
Heck, you're in Miami at that point. You can really have some fun if you've already got it clinched!
That whole last-lap pass thing, I guess if you're guaranteeing me I actually pass him on the last lap and it works, then heck yeah, let's do that. But there are no guarantees, so let's clinch it before we get there.