There is positive momentum at JTG Daugherty Racing, but there is also significant change afoot at the organization. The end result promises to be more of the same for AJ Allmendinger this season, a topsy-turvy ride of highs and lows as the organization continues its fight just to pull even with NASCAR’s top teams.
Allmendinger, 35, is hardly a stranger around the No. 47 Chevrolet these days. He’s been with the team on a full-time basis since 2014 with a win and four top-5 finishes. But 2017 brings a new challenge as the team expands for the first time to a second car.
Chris Buescher, still a Roush Fenway Racing and Ford driver by contract, has been loaned to the JTG outfit along with the No. 16 Charter. This new team — Buescher’s Chevrolet will carry the No. 37 — marks Allmendinger’s first opportunity to work directly with a teammate since his unceremonious departure from Team Penske in the middle of the 2012 season.
On its face, adding a teammate to the single-car JTG operation (the team has had a recurring contract with Richard Childress Racing in recent years for technical assistance) seems like a positive development for Allmendinger. There will be additional data collection and sharing of setup information. But the upgrade in information may not be enough to counteract how the team will adjust to the logistics of operating a full second team for the first time.
Signed to the team through 2020, Allmendinger has always appeared to relish his team’s role as an underdog with an understanding that improving results at JTG Daugherty is a multi-stage, multi-year journey. But Allmendinger is also the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve.
“I take it personal,” Allmendinger said before last season. “And I feel like I’ve let the team down if I’m not going out there and winning races.”
A run of bad luck last summer had Allmendinger feeling particularly down. He told reporters at a July Watkins Glen test that he had a feeling of being “gut-punched and kicked in the not-so-fun place” after a disappointing 14th-place finish at his bread-and-butter Sonoma road course. Add in a pair of crashes and a failure to finish due to overheating, and it was clear that Allmendinger expected more.
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Ultimately, he delivered. At season’s end, Allmendinger had scored nine top-10 finishes and an average finish of 17.8, his best showing in both categories since his 2011 season at Richard Petty Motorsports. Allmendinger also tied his career-high mark of 26 lead lap finishes. He rolled to top-10 finishes in four of last season’s final six races and tied for the series lead in improvement in average finish compared to his average running position midway through each race (plus-3.4 positions). A second-place finish at the spring Martinsville race showed Allmendinger could remain an outside threat on both short tracks and road courses.
It’s those two road course events where Allmendinger needs to capitalize if a postseason berth is to be in the cards. A 2014 win at Watkins Glen previously earned Allmendinger that opportunity.
But other than those races, Allmendinger’s best hope for improvement this season comes in continuing to string together good finishes while limiting those that deliver the “gut-punch.” It promises to be a challenge as JTG Daugherty tries out expansion for the first time.