For the first time in four years, AJ Allmendinger is coming into the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with a carryover from the previous season, and is brimming with newfound confidence.
The 2011 season marked his third and last with Richard Petty Motorsports, but since then it’s been something of a career odyssey and transformation for the 33-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif.
Allmendinger’s opportunity with Team Penske in 2012 went away midseason after a failed drug test. The following year Penske kept faith in him to run a selected IndyCar schedule, while also participating in select Sprint Cup races.
While he was named to the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet full-time in 2014, it came after the roller coaster two seasons before that.
As he enters this season, he armed with the same program year-on-year and the majority of the crew intact, Allmendinger is poised to build on what he and the No. 47 team did a year ago. Even though they won a race and made the Chase, Allmendinger said they were a 20th-22nd place team masquerading as a top-15 team.
“I look at last season two ways,” Allmendinger said during NASCAR media tour. “Winning was enormous. That provided so much confidence for the race team.
“But we weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be. We fell behind and that’s when it really hurt us where we were at. We never got the momentum going. The win helped, but it wasn’t until the last seven races we got to where we wanted to be.
“The new rules will be a guess package. But we’re so much further ahead as a race team. These first seven-eight races can really dictate our season. We’ll be ready to go.”
The “ready to go” line indicates a single-car team that is more prepared, and less behind, than it was at this point 12 months ago.
JTG Daugherty formed a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and the open book, exchange of information serves as a benefit for both parties.
This year though, Allmendinger wants to be beating RCR’s full-time trio on a regular basis. He didn’t indicate that as a slight, but meant that if RCR technical partner teams were on a same, close-to-championship-level caliber, it would help both organizations.
“It’s big to go into the second year together,” he said. “We were always sharing information. But RCR itself was figuring out what direction to go. When they had four cars, it was all different setups, and we still had to pick and choose and figure out what I wanted. (Ryan Newman) making a championship run helped make us all better together.
“We still want to beat everybody. I’d be dumb to say we don’t want to beat the RCR cars. As the 47 team… it’s my goal is to say we’re the best RCR car every weekend. I don’t want a one-sided relationship to be picking from them, and they don’t need anything from us.
“If we’re beating them, we’re doing something right and learning from us. We have to work together to beat those teams.”
Allmendinger also challenged both himself and crew chief Brian Burns, who signed a two-year contract extension during the offseason, to be better leaders.
“Brian is a relatively new crew chief,” Allmendinger explained. “He took over the end of 2012, when Todd Berrier left. The team was really just trying to get itself together. We were never on equal footing.
“So last year for Brian and I to work together, now we have to be better. We have to be better team leaders. Our relationship has developed. For him to get a new two-year deal, now he has the confidence for the leadership. He’s the man at the shop for all the guys. We have to work well together to take team to another level.”
Burns echoed the sentiment.
“I believe its better to be part of an alliance than have a four-car team in our shop,” he said. “They treat us like a teammate. We go up to their meetings during the week. Can walk right up to each person.
“I feel this year we’re way ahead of the ball. I’m happy with the direction we’ve taken. We’re feeding off a well-organized group that is set in stone.”
Lastly for Allmendinger, who is already beginning his ninth season in Sprint Cup this year, having the stigma of being a “winless driver” is now erased thanks to his own confidence-boosting, popular win at Watkins Glen last year.
“I’ve always looked at this sport and it’s really weird,” he said. “You can run up front, but if you don’t have a win you’re looked at differently. But get the one win, and your name is talked about so differently.
“It’s a strange thing. Just one win, and suddenly your name isn’t in that topic of ‘he’ll never win.’
“We’re a family and we’ve won a race now. I think we can win more, and we’ve gotten better in the offseason.”