The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has been one of the most intriguing and intense in recent memory. As we look ahead to what awaits on Sunday, the crowning of a new series champion, it’s amazing to go beyond the title battle and see at what other drivers are fighting for. You don’t have to scroll down the overall standing very long before you find the name of one AJ Allmendinger.
The 32-year-old from Los Gatos, California has risen against the odds this season with a single car team, JTG Daugherty Racing. Allmendinger signed to a multi-year deal with the No. 47 team late in August of 2013 after brief runs together that season. They started off 2014 slower than ideal, struggling to find their footing until a strong run at Fontana, finishing eighth.
The combination showed their versatility at back-to-back races at the .75-mile Richmond International Raceway and the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, scoring a sixth and fifth respectively. At Sonoma, it appeared that a win was in sight. Starting on the front row, Allmendinger grabbed the lead early and led a race-high 35 laps, but late contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. demolished any hope at a breakthrough victory. The team would have to settle for a 37th place finish.
Rise of the underdog
The result carried over to mediocre performances for a handful of weeks until the team hauler unloaded in Watkins Glen. In an intense duel with road course ace Marcos Ambrose, a former driver of JTG Daugherty Racing, Allmendinger fended off the Aussie and a slew of late race cautions on older tires to capture the inaugural victory for himself and the organization. The race was an instant classic with the ultimate underdog prevailing. The win was so popular among the NASCAR garage that Richard Childress and his former boss, Roger Penske, came to congratulate him in Victory Lane. Raw emotion was on full display as the ‘Dinger’ let eight years of frustration pour out in a celebration of jubilation.
“It’s just a memorable day to go out there and remember everything that just happened, and I hope I win a lot more, but if I don’t, to be able to remember it like this, it’s pretty awesome.”
The win also solidified their spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The team battled hard in the Challenger round of the Chase, missing the cutoff to advance into the Contender round by just two points. As the season wore on the team found more consistency and now find themselves ahead of six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson heading into Homestead.
Sitting down with AJ Allmendinger & Tad Geschickter
Your team is on the verge of finishing in the top 10 in points for the first time, tell me what that would mean to this organization?
AJ: “It’d be a big deal, but trying to not put all the emphasis on it with were the points are at right now. No matter what happens today I feel like we’ve had a really good season. We have a lot of goals to reach where we want to be, that’s a contending team, a top 10 team every weekend. To get a win with this race team, my first win, the team’s first win, for us overall a top 10 would be the pinnacle, but if we can go out today and have a solid race and finish 11th or 12th or whatever it puts us in points it’s been a good year. I don’t want to make it all or nothing because no matter what it’s still good, but a top 10 would be a fantastic season.”
Tad: “Well, you know we’ve been working on this for 20 years it’s been a breakthrough season, winning a race, being in the chase, you know the guys are building confidence now were running up here with these guys, realizing we can do it. I just think it has been a breakthrough year, I’m proud of everyone. Now we’ve done it for a year, I think we’ll have a lot of confidence going into the offseason, we’ll know what to do and prepare to do it again.”
What are the advantages of being a single-car operation?
AJ: “I think that if you look at our guys, the family atmosphere we have on this team, everybody is so close knit here at the racetrack. Back at the shop we only have 35 employees or so and that’s counting the front office and marketing side of it. We can focus on one race car, building and getting the best out of it for our team. Everybody has to work so close and so hard just to be able to compete with a Hendrick or a Gibbs or teams like that. It’s got its advantages. Having the alliance when we’re here at the race track I don’t feel like a one car team cause we can look at that data and everything, but back at the shop we’re a true one car team that gets along well and is able to focus on getting better. Building that one car each week and making it the best as possible.”
Tad: “Yeah, I think it’s lost on people. We got 40 guys preparing the car every week. We’re competing against guys on each side of us that have 400. The folks that are here they like making a difference they like being over more input, seeing their changes happen more rapidly than they do on larger teams. It takes a unique person to want to do it, but we got a really good group dedicated and they’ve done a lot with a little.”
How would you grade your season, AJ?
AJ: “If I graded myself I’d give myself a C+ or a B-, you know I feel like I can always improve in so many different ways. Leading this race team, it’s the first time I’ve really had to lead a whole organization, everywhere I’ve been I was always the second or third guy. So I always look at stuff I can do better to keep leading us and making sure we’re better as a race team and getting better. This team does a fantastic job, my guys have worked so hard, the alliance that we’ve had with RCR (Richard Childress Racing) and the ECR (Earnhardt Childress Racing) motors have been fantastic, so overall I’d give us a B. Just from the mere fact that the first half of the season I felt like we weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be. We’d have a good run and then we’d have two or three bad runs and we just weren’t consistent every weekend. That said, over the last seven weeks I feel like we’ve really come into our own. We’ve been fast, been consistent. You take out Talladega and our worst finish is 16th, that was last weekend and we ran way better than that. I said at the beginning of the season that if we get to the end of the year, get to Homestead, cross that checkered flag and it’s the best we’ve been all year then that’s a good year. We’ve improved, but overall I give us a B.”
When the engines fire for the start of the season finale Allmendinger will have his sights set on a strong finish, with the hope it will be enough to propel himself and JTG Daugherty Racing into the top 10 in points for the first time ever. Currently, Kyle Busch sits 24 points ahead, Carl Edwards sits 22, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is directly ahead by 15.
Allmendinger pushed the No. 47 Hungry Jack Chevrolet up to fourth in final practice.
It has already been a milestone year for both Allmendinger and JTG Daugherty Racing, showing the fight and grit of a true underdog all season long. You can bet they are going to push it for all its worth on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finish strong.
Image: Tom Pennington/Getty Images via NASCAR