Sleepless in Pocono, successful in Sonoma?
June 06, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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LONG POND, Pa. -- Forget Turn 4 -- Friday at Pocono Raceway, it would have been easy to understand if AJ Allmendinger was looking for turns 10 and 11.
The driver of the No. 47 car, crew chief Brian Burns, and four other members of the JTG Daugherty Racing team flew overnight to the east coast from Sonoma Raceway, where they tested two days at a road course that might be the organization's best chance at making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. After taking a redeye with a connection in Phoenix, Allmendinger and crew landed in Newark, N.J., early Friday morning, and after a two-hour drive to Pocono arrived about a half-hour after the garage opened.
"We kind of knew the schedule going into it," Burns said. "After the test, pretty much it's been a thrash the whole time."
A few members of the No. 47 team headed west immediately after the most recent Sprint Cup Series event at Dover, meaning they haven't been home since before last weekend. Since the Sonoma track was booked for Wednesday, Allmendinger tested on the serpentine layout Tuesday and Thursday, and his crew was already packing up the truck during the driver's final 15-lap run on the last day. They pulled out of the garage at about 4 p.m. Pacific time, and then drove to an hour to the Oakland airport to catch a 7 p.m. Pacific time flight.
Since they were delayed getting out, their layover in Phoenix turned into a hustle to the gate. There wasn't much sleep on the five-hour flight to Newark. "A little bit," Burns said. "On and off. The airplane window doesn't feel like a pillow."
And Pocono certainly doesn't feel like Sonoma, the buff-colored hills of the Northern California road course giving way to the greenery surrounding the 2.5-mile triangle.
"As soon as we landed, it was just as fast as we could get to the track," Burns said. Half the team had stayed behind to prep the Pocono cars, with the road warriors from the test joining the remainder of the crew at about 7:30 a.m. ET Friday. The weariness might have shown in the day's lone Sprint Cup practice session, where Allmendinger was 32nd.
"Showing up for practice this morning, it was catch up as fast as you can," said Burns, whose team is affiliated with Richard Childress Racing. "The driver's a little tired, and we were off a little bit just from not being caught up from this morning and talking to the RCR teams. But by the end of practice, we feel we've got a pretty good car here. I think we're caught up."
The No. 47 car certainly showed improvement in qualifying, placing 21st on the grid. "We were so far off when we unloaded, to at least get in the ballpark is good," Allmendinger said. "I'm used to racing a 24-hour race, so that's nothing. I'm more proud of my guys. They're the ones who should get the credit for how hard they work."
Allmendinger said he grabbed about 90 minutes of sleep after the team finally arrived in Pocono, and took another nap in the long break between practice and qualifying. He managed Friday with "some coffee, some water, back to coffee. My throat doesn’t feel real good right now," he said. But he realized the crewmen who made the trip with him had it worse.
"It's part of it," he said. "To be able to go test at Sonoma, you've got to do what you've got to do. I'm fine. It's the guys who have worked their butts off. We had five crew guys, and they're the ones working their tails off. I'm fortunate -- I get to at least go lay down in the bus for an hour and be ready. So I'm proud of those guys."
Allmendinger has two Nationwide Series victories on road courses, and finished ninth at Sonoma in his last premier-series race there, in 2012 with Team Penske. The JTG Daugherty driver was 20th in Sprint Cup points coming to Pocono, and the No. 47 team clearly sees the June 22 race at Sonoma as its best chance to record a victory that would likely earn it a berth into the Chase. If that happens, the efforts of one sleepless 48-hour period will have proven more than worth it.
"If we hadn't had gone there, and we would have unloaded the way we unloaded at the test, we would have been awful," Allmendinger said. "It would have been a nightmare of a weekend. It's already made a huge difference. If we'd have gone with what we planned to start with -- I can't even describe how bad we were. It was already worth it for that factor."
"We are very glad we went out there to test," Burns said. "Because we felt like when we unloaded, we were not where we wanted to be. But we made a ton of gains just in those two days. We feel way better about it. I can just imagine how the weekend would have gone unloading without going to the test and assuming what we were going into the test with last year's stuff. It wasn’t the same thing. We feel real good about going back to Sonoma this time."
But first, they had to get through Friday at Pocono. The dark circles under the crew chief's eyes were evidence of the redeye flight.
"We're trying to all blow it off," Burns said of the fatigue. "We're all shoving Monsters and Red Bulls down our throats here waiting to crash. But we'll be all right."