NASCAR: AJ Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty team making strides last few weeks

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Chances are you haven’t noticed much, but one of the surprise and better stories the last several weeks from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage is the progression of AJ Allmendinger and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet team.

This time last year, Allmendinger was ramping up for his Indianapolis 500 debut in a third Team Penske Chevrolet. He’d driven in two Verizon IndyCar Series races prior to that and had also made several starts for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team, which is now HScott Motorsports.

Towards the end of the year, the brief open-wheel dalliance ran its course – Allmendinger started only the IndyCar season finale after a nightmare weekend at Roger Penske’s promoted race in Detroit when he crashed out on the first lap in both races.

His NASCAR presence intensified, with a higher volume of starts coming for both Finch and in the No. 47 car, which he now drives full-time. In total, Allmendinger started 18 of 36 Cup races last year, nine apiece with the two teams, and posted a 10th place finish at Watkins Glen for JTG as his best.

The No. 47 team, now running Chevrolets and with ECR engines after switching from Toyotas over the winter, has been a quiet surprise the last several weeks.

In 10 races this year, Allmendinger has not finished worse than 26th. In the last six races, Allmendinger has five top-15 finishes, and three top-10s; the best of which was a fifth he just posted this past Sunday in Talladega. He now sits 15th in points, only 18 out of the top 10.

“Heck, I just wanted to finish this race because I haven’t finished much here,” Allmendinger said in the team’s post-race release. “I was close to two of the wrecks. I was coming to the checkered flag thinking, ‘Please, let’s just roll this thing back up on the hauler with all four tires rolling.’

“It’s just a testament to this team. They work hard and all the credit goes to my guys. We only have about 35 employees and they keep busting their butts. Tad Geschickter his wife Jodi and Brad Daugherty have such a great ownership and it’s a lot of fun. They make me feel like family. This whole team is like family. This is probably the best team I have driven for when it comes to the unity of the team making me feel important.”

It’s not something to overlook, the progress of a motivated driver on a single car team looking to overachieve. Kurt Busch’s efforts for Furniture Row Racing were among the great stories of 2013.

Now, the guy who replaced Busch at Penske, and is now going through his own rebirth, is starting to write the chapters of his own great story.

Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato welcomes ‘Baby Borg’ to the family

Photos: Michael L. Leavitt
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Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.

But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.

The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.

Try putting that on a mantle in your house.

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.

“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.

“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”

Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.

And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.

“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.

“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.

“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”

Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.

Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.

“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
Michael Andretti celebrates his 5 Indy 500 wins as a team owner, and Takuma Sato celebrates his first Indy 500 win
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.

“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.

Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.

It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.

Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.

“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.

“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.

“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”