SONOMA — Even with the Toyota/Save Mart 350 being the race closest to home, with his sponsors from the Bay Area, with this being one of his best shots at winning on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit this year, A.J. Allmendinger has to be reminded by those around him to stay patient.
After all, Allmendinger isn’t going anywhere. It appears he’s finally found a home.
After seven years of shifting from team to team, going between stock cars and open wheel, and dealing with a drug suspension for what was reportedly a banned stimulant, things have settled down for the Los Gatos native.
Allmendinger signed a long-term deal with single-car JT Daugherty Racing before the season, and even though the team’s performance has been uneven, it appears he’s as happy right now as he’s even been with the close-knit outfit.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a race team,” Allmendinger said earlier this month.
This will be Allmendinger’s first Cup race in Sonoma since 2012, when he finished ninth. A month later after that race, though, he tested positive for amphetamines and was suspended by NASCAR. His full-time ride in Cup racing with Penske Racing came to an abrupt end after less than a full season.
Allmendinger enrolled in the NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, and was reinstated by NASCAR less than four months later.
“He learned some valuable lessons about being on that public stage,” said Brad Daugherty, the team’s co-owner along with Tad and Jodi Geschickter, by phone this week. “Everybody’s always patting you on the back, but as soon as things don’t go the way they think they should go for you, how easily people can yank the rug out from under you.
“I’m proud of him. He’s trying so hard to grow.”
Allmendinger’s road back to full-time status on the Cup series in 2013 included being re-signed by Penske to run some races in the Nationwide Series — where he won at Road America the same weekend the Cup series was in Sonoma — and IndyCar. Then came word last July, after he had competed in a handful of Cup races for Phoenix Racing, that he would be signing with JT Daugherty and replacing Bobby Labonte.
JT Daugherty Racing was looking to make some significant changes after another year of sub-par results. Labonte had just four top-10 finishes in 100 starts for the team from 2011-2013, and instead of continuing with Toyota, the team made the decision to switch to Chevrolet’s, run with engines provided by Richard Childress Racing, and go with a younger, more versatile driver.
“Our last three years, the performances have just been miserable, and we don’t consider ourselves a backwater race team,” Daugherty said. “We started looking at some younger drivers out there, and I think AJ was at the top of the list.”
The improvements have been modest, but encouraging. JT Daugherty Racing finished 31st in owner points last season, and enters this week 21st. Allmendinger has three top 10s, and has finished just outside the top 20 the last four weeks.
“Are we good? We have the potential of being good. Are we there yet? No,” Allmendinger said Friday. “On our best weekends like this, can we go win a race? I think we can, but we are going to have weekends like the last couple of weeks we just struggled to run 20th. That is the nature of it.”
There is greater optimism for this week, though.
Allmendinger said his test sessions at Sonoma two weeks ago were fruitful, putting the team well ahead of where it would have been had it not had that practice time. He also has more experience competing on road courses than many of his counterparts.
Sonoma is also a place where big-budget, multi-car teams do not always dominate like they do at 1.5-mile tracks. Kurt Busch, for example, raced for Phoenix Racing in 2012 and Furniture Row Racing in 2013, and finished in the top five both times. Marcos Ambrose has also posted top 10 finishes in each of the past four years, including in 2010 when he probably should have won with the No. 47 car that Allmendinger drives now.
Still, Allmendinger is starting that this is a process. He and the team want to be good for more than once race on the calendar.
“Tad Geschickter, he is the most patient person, and I’m not,” Allmendinger said. “So, I get done and I’m like ‘we’ve got to fix this.’ As he told me when we started this, ‘this isn’t a one-weekend, a one-race, a one-year thing. I’m in this team for a long-term period.’ We just have to keep getting stronger together.”
Follow Curtis Pashelka on Twitter at twitter.com/CurtisPashelka.