This isn't the start to the 2012 Sprint Cup season A.J. Allmendinger envisioned when he made the decision to jump from Richard Petty Motorsports, where he was driving the iconic No. 43 car, to Penske Racing and driving the No. 22 Dodge.
Allmendinger had hoped to finish strong last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway after struggling to a 34th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. And after climbing to as high as fourth by Lap 195 of the 312-lap event -- even though that largely was because he hadn't pitted while the top cars in the race had -- it looked for a while as if that was just what was going to happen.
Instead, Allmedinger battled an ill-handling race car and poor luck all day and had to settle for an 18th-place finish. That left him a disappointing 25th in the point standings after the season's first two races.
Earlier in last Sunday's race, Allmendinger also appeared poised to make a move more toward the front when he got clipped by the No. 27 Chevrolet driven by Paul Menard. But Allmendinger later said it was simply a long, pretty much lost weekend from the start.
And that, he admitted, was totally unexpected.
"Honestly, it was a bit of a frustrating weekend -- especially on the heels of Daytona," Allmendinger said. "I've always run well [at Phoenix], so I came in with my goal being a top-five or top-10 [car], at least. We just couldn't get the car dialed in from the start."
It wasn't for a lack of trying by Allmendinger and his new crew chief, Todd Gordon.
"Todd and our team sat down [last] Friday evening and really worked on it," Allmendinger said. "I felt we made some good gains for qualifying and heading into the race. ... But the way the schedule was [last weekend] without a practice after qualifying, those changes were still a bit of a gamble."
Gordon said the team's struggles right now mostly are a matter of needing to improve communication between crew chief and driver. Right now, because they're still developing that understanding, it's hard for Gordon to know precisely what in-race adjustments to make to the car when Allmendinger attempts to convey his frustrations.
"You've got to take what you've got and keep digging with it," Gordon said. "It's a communication thing, just learning what A.J.'s talking about when he's talking about tight or loose and the amount that it is. That's probably the biggest challenge we've got right now, quantifying what his statements are."
Allmendinger and Gordon both indicated that they saw some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel based on how the No. 22 pit crew was able to repair damage to the car after Menard ran into it.
"We just didn't seem to be able to get the car into the track," said Allmendinger, who replaced Kurt Busch as driver of the No. 22 car after last season. "It just kept getting tighter and tighter. It was a handful, but we were holding on.
"Then the 27 got into me and I bounced between him and the wall. That popped the rear-deck lid. Man, the whole 22 Penske crew worked their butts off to repair the car and keep us in the race. After that, we actually were running the fastest laps with the Dodge Charger, but we just couldn't gain any track position. So really, we spent the last runs trying to dig in and get what we could."
Likewise, Gordon was pleased with the overall team effort.
"I thought the guys did a good job getting it fixed and getting us back where we could race," Gordon said. "We were a couple of tenths [of a second] off the leaders once we got it fixed. We survived and turned a bad day into a mediocre day. That's what you've got to do. You've got to accumulate all the points you can. It's about survival.
"Obviously, it was not what we were looking for coming into [Phoenix], but I think we've learned more about our communication and where we're at. I've learned more about how I need to react to A.J.'s comments. It's part of the learning curve of a new driver and new crew chief to a new team."
Allmendinger has never had much luck at Las Vegas, where the Sprint Cup Series is headed this weekend. He's run just three Cup races at the 1.5-mile intermediate track, with an average finish of 25.7. Last year he qualified seventh but finished 19th -- and that's the best he's ever done.
Last year also was the first time at Vegas in which Allmendinger managed to finish on the lead lap. He started 40th and finished 25th, two laps down, in 2010. And in 2009, he started 19th but finished 33rd and four laps off the pace.
Yet Allmendinger said he remains optimistic about the young season.
"Like Todd has said, [Phoenix] was our first real race together and there's still some learning of each other we have to do," Allmendinger said. "So we'll take that on to Vegas and keep moving forward."