Kurt Busch’s unexpected departure from the Penske Racing organization at the conclusion of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has caused quite a domino effect in regard to driver moves for the quickly approaching new season.
Busch’s exit resulted in three changes among full-time Sprint Cup Series rides with AJ Allmendinger becoming the primary benefactor as he was named the driver of Busch’s former ride, the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Charger. He will team with Brad Keselowski for the two-car Penske organization.
Allmendinger arrives from Richard Petty Motorsports, where he spent the last three years and is coming off the best season of his five-year Sprint Cup Series career. Driving the No. 43 entry for RPM, Allmendinger finished 15th in the Sprint Cup Series standings last year with 22 top-15 finishes, including 10 top-10 efforts. Allmendinger, 30, will be paired with crew chief Todd Gordon, who led the Penske Racing No. 22 Nationwide Series team to six victories last season and was promoted to the Sprint Cup Series level as a result.
“I have always admired Roger Penske and the way his teams compete and win in every series where they race,” Allmendinger said. “I am honored to join Penske Racing and I will do my very best to continue to build on the standard of excellence established across the organization.”
Added Penske: “AJ is a very talented and motivated driver and we believe he will be a terrific fit with our team. He has shown great promise and consistent results on the track over the last few seasons and working with Todd and the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge team will allow him to take the next step and compete for race wins and a spot in the Chase in 2012.”
Allmendinger’s move to Penske opened up his seat in the Richard Petty Motorsports famed No. 43 entry and the team recently announced that Aric Almirola will be their driver for 2012.
Almirola, 27, finished fourth in the Nationwide Series championship last season for JR Motorsports and also arrives with previous Sprint Cup Series experience. He drove in 35 Sprint Cup Series races from 2007 to 2010, with stops at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Ginn Racing, Phoenix Racing and RPM. His last Sprint Cup race came in the 2010 season finale at Homestead, where he finished fourth for RPM. Greg Erwin will remain with the team as the crew chief for Almirola in the revered No. 43 Ford.
“One of the things I am most excited about is to have the chance to drive a car as iconic as the No. 43,” Almirola said. “There is so much history surrounding that number and to have my name above the door will be really special for me. This is the first real opportunity I’ve had to drive in the Cup Series full time. Last year, the No. 43 team had a lot of speed and was competitive on a weekly basis. Greg Erwin is a great crew chief and I’m excited to work with him.”
Added Petty: “We feel extremely fortunate to have had a number of very talented drivers interested in joining our organization, but ultimately we felt Aric would be the best fit for the team and for our current and potential partners. We have had the chance to watch his progress for the past several years and we had success with him in the past. We are really confident in his potential as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver. We think Aric has all the makings to be the next bright star in our sport.”
Meanwhile, Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, landed at Phoenix Racing. He will be driving the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet for the full Sprint Cup Series season under owner James Finch. Busch also will drive a limited Nationwide Series schedule for the team.
Finch celebrated his 20th year as a NASCAR team owner in 2011 and his Spartanburg, S.C.-based team has won 13 NASCAR races, the most prominent being the April 2009 Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. He is now coupled with the 33-year-old Busch, who has won 24 Sprint Cup races and qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup on six occasions since its inception in 2004. Busch replaces Landon Cassill, who competed in 29 races for Phoenix Racing last season and currently is searching for a new ride.
“I’m very happy to join Phoenix Racing and after entertaining a lot of quality offers, there’s no better place for me,” Busch said. “We’re going to run the full schedule together, and we’re going to have fun doing it. It’s going to be old-school racing, where we show up, race hard and go for the win. And if we don’t win, we’ll go back to the shop, work hard and do it all over again next week. That’s the way we all started racing, and it’s great to get back to that.”
Said Finch: “All we want to do is win. Winning is why I’ve been in racing for as long as I have, but NASCAR is a very competitive sport, and winning – especially at the Sprint Cup level – is hard. But now with Kurt Busch as our driver, we have a shot to win every week. He’s a past champion and he’s proven he can win everywhere. We have excellent equipment and a hard-working group of guys who want that trophy at the end of every race. Kurt’s the guy who can deliver it to them.”