Much of what can be said about AJ Allmendinger right now has little actually to do with 2016.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of topics to discuss concerning the driver of the No. 47 for JTG Daugherty Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Though 2016 didn’t bring about the 36-year-old’s best finish in overall points, it was arguably his best season since joining the No. 47 team ahead of the 2014 season.
But it is important to note that next year, for the first time since his days as a fill-in driver with Team Penske in 2012, Allmendinger will have an actual teammate, as JTG Daugherty expands to two Cup teams — something it’s never done since first entering the series nearly a decade ago.
If the upward trajectory the driver and his team were able to set between 2015 and 2016 is any indication, expansion is not only a solid idea — it’s also one that actually might go off without a hitch.
Allmendinger entered 2016 coming off one of his iffier seasons as a full-time driver. Though he scored two poles, he finished in the top 10 three times and scored no top 5s, the first time that had happened for the driver while running full-time since 2008. In all, Allmendinger seemed far removed from the driver who steered his team into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup via a win at Watkins Glen International, and concluded the 2015 season 22nd in points
And that’s not to say that 2016 was wildly better from a points perspective. Allmendinger missed the Chase as a wild card, ranking 20th following the 26th race of the season and without a win to his credit (even though he was certainly part of the conversation at the road courses, as usual). He ended up one spot better by season’s end, finishing 19th.
But consider it this way: under the old cumulative points system, Allmendinger would have ranked 17th, accruing 830 throughout the season. In comparison, despite a 2014 Chase berth due to his win, he was outside the top 20 in cumulative points, with two top 5s and five top 10s to his name for the season as a whole.
Compare that to 2016. No wins, sure, but two top 5s, nine top 10s and an average finish of 17.8. The top 10 total was his best since 2011, when he scored 10 while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, while his average finish was also his best since that season.
It’s a little more relevant to compare Allmendinger’s stats to that era anyway. JTG Daugherty and RPM are on a little more equal ground equipment-wise than, say, Allmendinger’s substitute days at Penske or his brief tenure at Phoenix Racing at the end of 2012 and into 2013. In three years with RPM, Allmendinger improved each season, moving from 24th in points in 2009 to 19th in 2010 and finally 15th in 2011.
It’s worth wondering if he’s about to follow a similar path. Considering the results to be completely the same is already out the window due to Allmendinger’s subpar 2015, but the rebound in 2016 is a good omen indeed.
Perhaps a longer-lasting hot start was what was needed of him in order to truly succeed to the extent that he was considered a potential Chase wild card. There was a time in 2016 when Allmendinger was in contention, particularly after his second-place finish at Martinsville Speedway in April. But that was the sixth race of the season, and that came after just one additional top-10 run (eighth, Auto Club Speedway). That put him 12th, and it was somewhat downhill from there, with occasional bright spots (eighth at Kansas Speedway, for instance) that took the spotlight away from general mediocrity elsewhere.
Give him credit for coming on strong at the end of the season, though. Four of his nine top 10s came in the final six races of 2016, beginning with yet another eighth at Kansas and including two 10ths (Talladega Superspeedway, Martinsville) and another eight (Homestead-Miami Speedway). His other two results in that span? A pair of 17th-place finishes. Even if the No. 47 wasn’t contending for wins per se, at least it was in the top half of the field at the finish — and consistency can be key, especially if wins are generally out of the question for your single-car team.
Which is what makes 2017 intriguing. Not only is Allmendinger back with the same cast of characters next season, retaining a similar sponsor lineup (Kroger, as usual, dominates with a 24-race primary sponsorship) as well as crew chief Randall Burnett, who took over for Brian Burns before the beginning of the 2016 season — he’s also gaining a teammate for the first time since his Penske days. Chris Buescher moves into the JTG Daugherty stable for 2017, driving the newly minted No. 37 for the now-two-car organization.
Will there be growing pains? Possibly. Will they affect Allmendinger if so? Almost certainly. But his strong 2016, particularly an admirable end to the season, suggests that even if his team has its issues in the expansion, the NASCAR veteran will weather the storm.
And if not, hey, there are always the short tracks and road courses.