by Ryan Isley
Sometimes, things take longer than anticipated to develop for one reason or another. And while it has certainly taken longer than expected, maybe – just maybe – 2015 is the year when AJ Allmendinger makes the leap in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
That leap seemed to be taking place between 2010-12, when Allmendinger had his strongest run yet as a regular in the series but was cut short. He finished with 10 top-10s in 2011 and then had three top-10s and a career-best runner-up finish in the first 17 races of 2012 before being suspended on July 7 for failing a drug test. He was suspended indefinitely on July 24 after his “B” sample also failed.
With that failed test came NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, which Allmendinger completed in about two months, earning himself reinstatement from NASCAR on September 24, 2012. He finished out the 2012 season driving for Phoenix Racing and then also ran a limited schedule for the team in 2013, running in 18 races.
Seeing the potential that existed with Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing signed the driver to race for them in 2014. In his first full season as a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver since 2011, Allmendinger had two top-5s and five top-10s, along with picking up his first career series win at Watkins Glen in August. That win propelled him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, where he was eventually eliminated after the first round and finished 13th in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
That win also turned around a season that looked as if it was going to go south. After finishing 6th in Richmond and 5th at Talladega, the 11 races prior to the win resulted in an average finish of 26.3 for Allmendinger and not a single finish better than 18th. Following the win, Allmendinger finished with seven top-15 finishes in the final 14 races of the season to turn 2014 around with a positive outlook heading into 2015.
The foundation has now been laid for Allmendinger and this team to make a statement in 2015. Not only has Allmendinger agreed to stay with JTG Daugherty, but so has crew chief Brian Burns and both are signed with the team for two more seasons. If 2014 was a chance for the team to get to know each other and gel, 2015 has to be the year that they show an improvement when it comes to success. Making the Chase in 2014 was an unexpected step for this team, but one that they must now continue to improve upon.
One positive for Allmendinger is that the last time he was in the position where he had a full-time Sprint Cup Series ride for consecutive seasons, he improved each season.
This was coming off a 2008 season in which he drove in 27 of the 36 races and had two top-10s and an average finish of 25.3. When his 2012 season came to a halt due to the suspension, he had one top-5 and three top-10s in 17 races and had an average finish of 20.7 but was coming off two straight 9th-place finishes when the suspension occurred.
Allmendinger just finished a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season in which he had the second-most laps completed in his career (10,280), third-most laps led in a season in his career (68) and had the best finish in the standings in his career (13th). All of the seasons in which he finished with better numbers were 2011 and 2012, meaning that Allmendinger is right back to where he left off before his suspension.
Given a second chance, 2015 just might be the best year yet for AJ Allmendinger.