As the Sprint Cup Series got into the summer months last year, A.J. Allmendinger found himself in the middle of a slump, posting mid-20 finishes, or getting caught up in a wreck.
“During the summer months, we struggled,” he said. “We went from Pocono – we were running well and got into a big crash and next thing, we couldn’t do anything right and we were 23rd in points. It was like, ‘What are we going to do?’”.
Then, it happened. Everything came together not only for his season, but for one of the biggest highlights of his career to date.
Allmendinger would out-duel Marcos Ambrose over the course of the final laps at Watkin’s Glen to the checkered flag to score his first career Sprint Cup Series victory. While the moment was pure magic with it being Allmendinger’s first win, it was even more magical in the eyes of some fans with JTG Daugherty being one of the few single car organizations still out there that is having success against the mega three-, four-car teams.
“To finally get a win and the way we did it in the fashion of Watkin’s Glen in the great battle with Marcos Ambrose, to be able to share that with Tad, Jody and Brad, and really the whole race team – there was so many people on the 47 team that hadn’t won a Cup race. Myself, my crew chief Brian Burns, my race engineer Tony Palmer on down the line. A lot of hadn’t won a Cup race so to be able to do that together was really special. To walk in the shop and see that race winning banner up there and know we accomplished something pretty cool as a small race team in our first year together is really special,” Allmendinger shared with OnPitRoad.com earlier this week.
The win marked a special moment for the team, but it also marked a whole change in perspective in how their season had gone to that point.
“We go win and you go from 23rd in points to ‘Oh My God, we might have a chance to go win a championship now’. You can’t substitute that joy and pressure wrapped up together,” he commented.
The Chase format certainly gave Allmendinger a rebirth mid-season, however it wasn’t a championship format that he wasn’t always fond of.
“At first when they did the format, I didn’t really know about it,” he said. “I wanted to see it play out, but my initial thoughts were that I wasn’t a big fan of it because for a person to win a race and automatically get in the Chase compared to someone who’s consistent, it’s hard – it depends on how you look at it.”
Though as the year went on, he says his perspective changed in watching how the pressure of the new format played an effect on the drivers and teams.
“To me, it was one of the most thrilling and exciting years, and I felt like we saw that on TV and in-person every week,” he continued. “Just the pure pressure that everybody was under. We saw guys that – it’s been well documented with Matt Kenseth – guys that have been so calm and you just see that level of pressure build them up so much that we see them do things that they haven’t done before. To me, the Chase played out and to have the final race and come down to the end between Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman – Denny Hamlin was in it till the end, and Joey Logano. The pressure on the pit crew guys, the drivers, the teams – it was absolutely awesome.
“So I really like the format and fortunately, it’s not changing this year and hope we see the same type of racing once again. It’s fun for us as racecar drivers and competitors, and I feel like the fans like it, too.”
After making the Chase, Allmendinger was able to put some strong finishes together throughout the year en route to finishing 13th in the Sprint Cup Series standings. Noting that the team had their ups and downs throughout the year, Allmendinger was proud of their efforts and how the team stuck together.
“We were open at what we thought we had to be better at, and because of that, we had a better relationship together and grew as a family,” he explained. “All together, it was a great year. You can always – for me, I always nitpick, especially myself, where I can be better at. The good thing is we know that and we’ve been working on that, and heading into this year, I think we’re going to be better because of that.”
In looking at where he and the team could improve for the upcoming season, Allmendinger feels that he could be better as a team leader. In the past, Allmendinger has always been the second-tier driver at organizations like Richard Petty Motorsports and Penske Racing; however, now, as the lone ranger, the reins of leading the team fall on his shoulders.
“I feel that I have to be better at that,” he commented. “I feel like I did a good job in the car for the most part, but there were times that I got frustrated. There were times that I let myself get down and didn’t lead us the way that we needed to be led at times. The great thing is that I have a great team owners in Tad Geshickter and Brad Daugherty, that have been leaders of their team and I can learn a lot of from them. I’ve been learning so much on how to be a team leader. For me, I’m always working on it in the racecar, but as a whole, I got to get better as a team leader. If I do that, then I will help us be better as a race team.”
He added that with regards to the team, if they keep doing what they’re doing and learning, while taking advantage of the resources offered through their alliance
with Richard Childress Racing, they can continue to get stronger and start producing top-10 finishes.
“We’re still a small team with not as many resources to go out there and beat the big teams,” he continued. “So we just keep working hard than everybody else, stick together better than any other team, and that’s how I feel we can go out and beat them.”
With the success of last year still in the winds, the 33-year-old is excited about the new season and what’s to come.
“Anytime you start a new year, you’re excited about it,” he said. “I feel like after last year with our success late in the year, I felt like the team jelled and we really started running well at a lot of race tracks. So I’m looking forward to this year.”
Allmendinger added that the new package adds a bit of an unknown, which he will get a chance to try out in a test next Monday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Overall, just to have a second year together with this race team – for the most part, we’re staying intact and I feel like we’ve added a couple key components to make us better,” he continued. “Just really looking forward to kicking the season off.”
With the win last year, the expectations are high as to what Allmendinger and JTG Daugherty Racing is capable of heading into the new year. Having the victory under his belt, Allmendinger is looking towards winning another race, possibly two or more, this upcoming season while being back as part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“At the end of the year last year, we were right on the edge of finishing in the top 10 and had the tire problem at Homestead,” he commented. “So, it’s tough because I look at it two ways. With the new format it gave us a chance with the win to be in the Chase. But at the same point, really throughout the course of the year, we didn’t run as well as I wanted to, or at least we weren’t consistent. During the summer months, we struggled a little bit and at the end of the year, I felt that we ran better.
“I just want to get it to where we’re a solid top-15 team every weekend. On our good days, we’re in the top-10 and at least putting ourselves in position to win a race or two, because that’s what it really comes down to in running up front enough to give yourself a shot to go races. So, that’s what’s I look at. I don’t want to set a certain points position to dictate what is a success for our season. I just want to run well and be up near the front of the field consistently, because I felt last year especially during the summer that we lacked that a little bit.”
Being quick at both road courses last year, the win at Watkin’s Glen and running up front at Sonoma Raceway till the wreck, the California native is looking forward to getting back to those tracks. He also noted that he is looking forward to the short tracks, simply based on the success last year with a couple top-10 runs and feeling that was the team’s strength in 2015. However, based on the new rule package, that could change as they may be stronger at another track.
“With this new rule package, we’ll see where our strengths are and with how the beginning of the season is laid out, it shows really what we’re strong at,” he commented. “You almost get to go to every type of track in the first six or seven races so it kind of allows us to see where we’re strong, and where we’re weak so we know what to work at. I look forward to going to every track, but if I had to choose a couple, I’d say the road courses and the short tracks, like Martinsville, Phoenix type of places is where we were strong last year. Initially, that’s where I look forward to going to.”