This week JTG/Daugherty Racing announced that AJ Allmendinger will drive the No. 47 Charter Communications Toyota Camry in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The team co-owner, Tad Geschickter said, “We’re not replacing Bobby, he’s still our driver.” Geschickter continued saying, “It is a good opportunity for us to verify what Bobby thinks the main issue is.”
Labonte who has the second longest active consecutive start streak in the series at 704, only one start behind Jeff Gordon, will drive the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet for James Finch. When asked about the situation, Labonte commented, “They (JTG) have given me a great opportunity to help this team grow. It’s where my focus has been since racing with the team in 2011. I want to see this team get better and will do what I need to do to make that happen.” Labonte has 14 previous starts with the James Finch team, so he is familiar with most of the key team members.
This weekend’s switch could help both JTG and Labonte. It will give the team a chance to get feedback from a driver who has driven for other teams and see if there are any obvious differences that could be causing the team’s lack of performance. When asked if there were specific areas they were wanting AJ to assess, a JTG/Daugherty team representative said, “No, we’re just looking for an overall assessment.”
For Labonte, it will give him the opportunity to drive different equipment and see if he experiences a different feel behind the wheel. The team has had some solid finishes this season, in fact, many have been better than that of the No. 47 that Labonte usually drives, so it should give him a good gauge of what the car should be doing.
The big question is – What happens if Allmendinger performs well this weekend? Even though team officials say “Bobby is our driver”, could a strong run from AJ led to a more permanent change? There are several other factors to keep in mind as well. Labonte, who is 49, is obviously in the later stages of his career, has years of experience and is a former champion, but is that enough? As much as we hate to say it, AJ is younger, and perhaps more marketable in today’s NASCAR. AJ has also turned in some impressive performances in the recent past. Results that include four top twenty finishes in just five starts in the Phoenix Racing Chevy that Labonte is piloting this weekend. All these factors together could be the recipe that JTG/Daugherty needs to take the next step and start competing in the top twenty on a regular basis, a fact that Daugherty has said is a definite goal for the team.
I was very glad to hear Daugherty and Geschickter this week talking about how they want this team to improve. I’m glad they aren’t just racing for a weekly paycheck. They seem to really want this team to improve. If the JTG car is capable of competing at a higher level than it has been, and AJ turns in another impressive finish this weekend, we could see a changing of the guard at JTG.