AJ Allmendinger was seething after he got out of the seat of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford following his 13th-place finish at Michigan International Speedway in June.
“We have to get better,” said the former open-wheel star who's slowly but surely become a solid stock car driver.
Furious that he ran up front for most of the race but was unable to translate the speed in his car into a victory or even a top-five finish, Allmendinger was clear RPM still has a way to go before it is a serious contender week in and week out.
“We aren't a Chase team right now,” said Allmendinger flatly. “Obviously you want to score every point you can but we need to be better before we worry about making the Chase. Today was a big step. We were never really good here and we were a top-five car all day. So 13th sucks in the end compared to what we had, but I am proud of what we did today instead of the points.”
That Allmendinger could be complaining about a top-15 finish is nothing short of remarkable, given the incessant drama and turmoil RPM has endured in the last four years, a saga as strange and convoluted as any in NASCAR.
It all began back in 2007, when Ray Evernham, the brilliant crew chief and architect of Dodge's Phoenix-like ascension back into the Sprint Cup ranks, sold Evernham Motorsports for an estimated $120 million to entrepreneur George Gillett, then owner of the Montreal Canadiens National Hockey League team and the Liverpool soccer club.
In June of 2008, Richard Petty sold his family's Petty Enterprises to Boston Ventures, a New England investment firm that promised to pump millions of dollars into the team and restore the long-suffering team to its past glory. Boston Ventures reportedly paid “The King” $60 million for his team, but neglected one key aspect of race-team ownership: Without a sponsor, you have nothing. And despite the new investment in the team, they were unable to land sponsors for 2009.
Petty Enterprises, the team Richard's father Lee Petty started in a dirt-floor North Carolina garage in 1949 and built into the winningest team in NASCAR history, suddenly and shockingly closed its doors at the end of 2008, just six months after Boston Ventures bought. No sponsors, no team.
But The King, above all else, is a survivor. In January 2009, Gillett hired Petty to be the frontman for his team, which he renamed Richard Petty Motorsports, and gave Petty a four percent equity stake. When Kasey Kahne won on the Infineon Raceway road course in June 2009 (RIGHT), it looked like Petty was back in a big way. Alas, it was not to be. Despite a switch to Ford for 2010 and another ginned-up “merger” with Doug Yates prior to last season, Gillett's financial house of cards collapsed midway through 2010. Short sales of his soccer and hockey teams left Gillett millions in debt and his absentee ownership drew the ire of fans in all three sports he had invested in.
Gillett had purchased Evernham Motorsports at the absolute top of the market, but manufacturer support dried up when Dodge's parent company Chrysler LLC went bankrupt, and Gillett's other sports investments collapsed, too. He defaulted on a $90 million loan he bought RPM with, and lender Wachovia took over the team last year. By October 2010, it was unclear whether RPM would even be able to finish the season, as it owed a reported $10 million to Roush Fenway Racing, which built its cars and provided powerplants through Roush Yates Engines.
Then…relief at long last. In late November 2010, the bank sold the team to a group of investors led by Petty. The rumored sale price was a mere $15 million, which made the deal considerably more attractive. The big money contributors were Medallion Financial, a multi-billion-dollar New York City outfit that got rich selling taxi licenses, and DGB Investments, which has ties to Silicon Valley and Canada. Lisa Brown was hand-picked by Petty to be the company's CEO, although Petty was given complete control over the racing decisions.