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Allmendinger returns to full-time Cup ride

August 31, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Will pilot the No. 47 currently driven by Bobby Labonte in 2014

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Tad Geschickter just wanted a second opinion. AJ Allmendinger just wanted to get back behind the wheel.

At the time, neither one of them thought any more of it than that.

“I didn’t know AJ Allmendinger very well before that,” admitted Geschickter, primary owner of the JTG Daugherty team that fields the No. 47 car on NASCAR’s premier series.

“I didn’t think anything would come of it. I just wanted to get in the car,” Allmendinger added.

It was a relationship of convenience, a driver with experience in a host of different vehicles and an owner looking for reasons why his vehicle was 30th in points. So JTG Daugherty decided to put Allmendinger in the car for a handful of races as a comparative measure to regular driver Bobby Labonte, whose streak of 704 consecutive starts at the sport’s highest level -- third-longest all-time -- came to an end as a result.

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It was supposed to be temporary. But as it progressed, Allmendinger and Geschickter began talking about making it permanent. And that path ultimately led both men to Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Allmendinger was formally named to replace Labonte as the new driver of JTD Daugherty’s No. 47 car beginning next season.

“He’s a phenomenal person,” Geschickter said. “I was very impressed with his talent and enthusiasm and the way he interacted with the sponsors and everyone, and the relationship kind of evolved over the three races we’ve done. I’ll tell you, halfway through this two months we’ve been working together, we started talking more and more about well, maybe it’s time.”

For Allmendinger, the announcement capped a tumultuous 13 months. He lost his ride in Penske Racing’s No. 22 Sprint Cup Series car last July, following a failed substance abuse test and subsequent suspension for what the driver later admitted was the prescription drug Adderall. Following completion of NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, Allmendinger gradually rebuilt his career, running some races in the No. 51 car formerly owned by James Finch, some for his former boss Roger Penske, and some for JTG Daugherty.

Beginning with next year’s Daytona 500, he’ll be back at NASCAR’s top level full-time.

“Things just kind of kept falling into place,” said Allmendinger, 31. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever deserved it, that I deserved the second chance. But I worked really hard to get there. I felt like I was more ready than I’ve ever been. If any opportunity came up, I was more prepared mentally, physically, emotionally, to get in there and give it my full effort. Things just kind of kept evolving.”

Saturday’s announcement came as Labonte was at home nursing three broken ribs he suffered Wednesday in a bicycling accident, which forced him to spend a night in a hospital and miss this weekend’s event. The 2000 NASCAR champion was scheduled to drive the No. 51 car, and was replaced by Mike Bliss. Atlanta is one of three remaining starts Allmendinger has scheduled for the remainder of this year in the No. 47 car -- although the unknowns surrounding Labonte’s recovery time could mean a head start on next season.

“Bobby’s pretty banged up right now,” Geschickter said. “He has another doctor’s appointment on Monday, and I guess as a football head coach says, it may be a game-time decision. But Bobby still has a burning passion to drive the race car and see his contract through the end. But having said that, we obviously don’t want him to risk further injury or push the issue. So more to come. … That’s Bobby’s decision with his doctors, and we’ll just take it a day at a time on that.”

Allmendinger is ready if needed.

“I in no way want to try to do anything to get more races to push him out,” he said of Labonte. “He’s a Hall of Famer. I’m here for whatever Tad wants, if that’s next week or a race here or there. Of course, I want to be in the race car and drive it. But I’m not doing that at the will of somebody else. I’ll be ready to go. I have those races and that’s what’s left on my schedule anyway, but obviously I’m free if any more races need to be driven. That’s not my decision, and I’m not going to push for that, either.”

JTG Daugherty, a single-car operation which currently fields a Toyota, did not announce a manufacturer for next season -- that decision will be evaluated, co-owner Brad Daugherty said. The vehicle is 30th in Sprint Cup owners’ points, but competition director Bobby Hutchens said Allmendinger has already tested some in the car in preparation for next year.

“Our race team has adapted around AJ and what he needs in a race car,” Hutchens said. “Our single-car team from here, I feel, is only going to go forward. He’s gotten along great with our guys, has put a lot of energy into our race team. And at the end of the day, AJ likes to go fast, and that’s what we like to do.”

Allmendinger said he spoke with some other teams, but what helped sell him on JTG Daugherty was the faith Penske has in the organization. Allmendinger has grown closer to the reigning Sprint Cup championship owner since the turmoil of last year, winning two Nationwide Series races on road courses this season for Penske, as well as starting the Indianapolis 500.

“He has a high regard for this this race team, for Tad especially … the way they go about their business,” said Allmendinger, who added that his new ride would not preclude another Indy 500 effort for Penske next year. “For me that was something that really hit home, that Roger was really in high regard of what he thought this race team was, and what he thought it could be if all the right things happen and we do the right things. That was something that made me feel great.”

What now for Labonte, who has been the regular driver of the No. 47 car since 2011? The 21-time race winner on NASCAR’s top series is 49, and hasn’t been to Victory Lane since 2003. Like Allmendinger, Geschickter called Labonte “a Hall of Famer,” adding the Texas native has been mulling his next step. The No. 78 car of Furniture Row Racing is the only current opening for 2014.

“Bobby and I have had long talks, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning in the motor home about what’s next in his career, and I think he’s trying to decide that,” Geschickter said. “But he was in favor of us getting our here and announcing what we’re doing next year, too, so he could see what his options are as well.”

Meanwhile, Allmendinger prepares for a second chance he once never thought possible. The Northern California native opened this year with just one race on his schedule -- the Rolex 24 at Daytona sports-car event. With some help from Finch and Penske along the way, he’s rebuilt his NASCAR career to the point where he’s returning to the Sprint Cup ranks full-time -- and perhaps better off for the experience.

“It’s been a long journey over the last 12 months. But in a strange way, I’d never change it,” he said. “As weird as that sounds, with the hell I had to go through initially, the place that I’m at now as a person, I feel so much better about it.”

 

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