Photos by Patrick Smith and Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for NASCAR.
A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola. Both drivers picked up their first career win and Chase berth in 2014.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
The 2014 NASCAR season brought many new changes to the forefront of the sport. With the new Chase format announced at the beginning of the season, it was made clear a victory in any of the season’s first 26 races would all-but guarantee a playoff berth.
While the 16 drivers making the featured names most NASCAR fans would expect to see, the new Chase format setup the way for drivers who would otherwise not make the new playoffs to punch their ticket into the post-season.
Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports and AJ Allmendinger of JTG-Daugherty Racing are younger drivers and are not household names in the Sprint Cup Series. However, these two drivers made headlines this season, each winning their first career races at NASCAR’s top level.
“We’re at least in it, so we've got a shot at [the championship],” Allmendinger said at Richmond in September on making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I feel like we’re major underdogs, so we're going to let it all hang out for the next 10 weeks and see what happens,” Almirola said on making the Chase in September.
While Almirola’s and Allmendinger’s Chase ended in the first round, both had cars capable of contending in the latter rounds of the Chase. Almirola anchored the Chase field at 16th in points, but Allemdinger, who finished 13th overall, narrowly missed a top-ten in points, with troubles in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
2015 will be seasons to watch for the veteran drivers. Although both drivers are signed with their respective teams through 2016, this upcoming season will prove if the drivers are flashes in the pan or the real deal.
Photos by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR.
A.J. Allmendinger at Martinsville Speedway in March. Allmendinger finished 13th in points in 2014, a career high.
There’s no doubt competing in the Sprint Cup Series is tough, let alone winning an event within the series. There will be more pressure on the two to win a race in 2015, and more so to defend the races they won.
Look for Allmendinger to perform exceptionally well at the road course events this season, and for Almirola to be a contender at the restrictor plate venues, as well as mile-and-a-half racetracks.