AJ Allmendinger, JTG look to grow together
January 27, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
Allmendinger is ready for a comeback and the chance to contend every weekend
MORE: AJ Allmendinger driver profile | Team profile: JTG Daugherty Racing
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't until AJ Allmendinger was sitting on his couch watching a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on television in the fall of 2012 that it hit him. He missed it.
The driver had become increasingly frustrated with his showing that season following three top-10s in 17 starts for Roger Penske. The mental anguish worsened when Allmendinger was suspended for failing a drug test and lost his coveted Cup ride.
That combination led to a mental tug-of-war between missing racing and moving on with his life. A clear winner in that intrinsic battle wasn't established until Allmendinger watched from afar, his heart sinking, when he saw someone else climb into the ride he had worked so hard to get.
Allmendinger's comeback trail reached a crescendo Monday when the driver met with media members at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway as a full-time driver for JTG Daugherty Racing, his first full-time Cup opportunity since the suspension.
"When you're struggling, it's hard," Allmendinger said Monday. "You feel like you don't want to be there, or think 'Maybe I'm over this.' When it gets taken away from you, you really have to look at if you want to be there. Quickly I realized as I watched TV, I wanted to be back. Honestly, I didn’t know if I would have the opportunity. Today is almost like starting over."
And what better way for Allmendinger to start over than with a team that's doing the same. JTG Daugherty enters the 2014 season with a new driver in Allmendinger, a new manufacturer in Chevrolet and a new outlook on how the organization can compete with the multicar teams.
Back-to-back finishes outside the top 25 in owner's points -- 26th in 2012 and 31st in 2013 – forced the team, which previously ran Toyotas, to alter its approach. The entire structure was scrutinized in the offseason, a process that showed large gaps between assets and goals and led to a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.
"As we looked at our programs, we saw the huge holes that we weren't going to be able to fill in-house," team co-owner Brad Daugherty said. "We had the opportunity to look at the best resources available to us, and we knew we had to have an alliance if we truly wanted to be competitive.
"We talked about being competitive last year and then we ended up 30th. We feel like we're a top-20 team, but the reality of it is we were a 30th-place race team last year. We had to change."
Allmendinger, Daugherty and co-owner Tad Geschickter all extolled the value of an alliance with Richard Childress, who has figuratively opened the doors of his shop and provided the JTG Daugherty team with heaps of information as well as Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines. Working with RCR also gives the No. 47 team the ability to be flexible with its dollars -- the organization opted not to send Allmendinger to Preseason Thunder testing in Daytona, knowing it would get data from RCR.
It's a different way of doing things for a JTG Daugherty Racing team still in search of its first victory since joining the Sprint Cup ranks in 2009 with Marcos Ambrose. Despite the absence of a breakthrough victory, Geschickter -- who housed the first shop for his team in a barn with dirt floors -- sees progress as growth continues.
"We've always reinvested back in the business," Geschickter said. "I really feel like this is the year we can get to Victory Lane. With AJ, we think this is the year we can break through."
Allmendinger's relationship with the co-owners began last year. Seeking feedback on the car from a different driver, Geschickter -- who says he first met the driver last May -- supplanted Bobby Labonte with Allmendinger for two races. Allmendinger got additional seat time when Labonte broke three ribs in a bicycle accident.
Geschickter says it was never meant to be an audition, but the team liked the feedback Allmendinger gave. The driver had also snagged two races with Penske in the NASCAR Nationwide Series last year, and he won both of them on road courses to continue his comeback story.
"Through everything I've been through and all the different teams I've been lucky enough to drive for, to be with this race team and getting to know them, I thought this was the right place to be," Allmendinger said. "I really felt like this was the right choice for me and a good place where I could be for hopefully a long time.
"Of course, the goal is to bring that first (trophy) into the shop. But you can't jump from 30th to first right away. If we do everything to our maximum ability and what we're capable of, people will look at us and say, 'We can't sleep on them. They're contending every weekend.'"
Contending every weekend remains the ultimate goal. Daugherty says the success of single-car team Furniture Row Racing, which made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last year, gives the team a program to emulate. And given Allmendinger's success on road courses, Daugherty sounded every bit like a competitive former National Basketball Association star when contemplating the team's potential first victory.
"We go to Watkins Glen and some of those places, Dover, and we're going to kick their butts," Daugherty said. "That's what we're planning on doing. There's no need to be shy about it. We got out butts kicked last year, and we're going to try and return the favor."
It took a new way of thinking for JTG Daugherty to get in the position to be so confident, and for Allmendinger to rejoin the top level of NASCAR. Now they both go about rebuilding themselves, together, piece by piece, step by step.