AJ Allmendinger was one of five drivers who weren't in the top 16 in points but got into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup by virtue of a win, earning his entry with his victory at Watkins Glen.
Three races into 2015, Allmendinger certainly has a great shot at getting into the Chase with a victory thanks to his road-course prowess. But getting in on points? That might be more than just a dream for Allmendinger.
Allmendinger sits fifth in the standings after three races. But more than that, his finishes in the first two intermediate-track races show that his JTG Daugherty Racing team has come far in the past year.
He placed sixth Sunday at Las Vegas and seventh a week earlier at Atlanta. Last year, Allmendinger finished 18th at Vegas and 40th at Atlanta. Allmendinger posted no top-10s at 1.5-mile tracks last year, although he had an 11th, 12th and 14th in three of the last four 1.5-mile races, setting the foundation for the performances the past two weekends.
"I really look at this race as one of the best races I feel like we've run as a race team, just over the year now that we've been together," Allmendinger said Sunday. "The car was consistent all day. We kept kind of chipping away at it.
"Right at the end there, I thought we really had a fast race car, was kind of catching the guys and a few more laps might have been able to get a couple more guys."
Of course, it's early in the season, and the rigors of the NASCAR season tend to grind on small teams such as JTG Daugherty Racing. This is an organization that likely won't go to all 12 remaining tests because it can't afford to. When it doesn't go, it is likely that crew chief Brian Burns could attend and work with the Richard Childress Racing teams as part of their technical alliance.
Truex, Allmendinger and Casey Mears (25th) all drive for single-car teams that benefit from the alliance and hope to contribute when they can. Truex sits fourth in the points while Mears is ninth.
Allmendinger's performance Sunday showed the strength of this alliance, now in its second year on paper but really its first full year in practice. The alliance came together so late in 2013 that the organization couldn't use all the tools early in the year. By the end of last season, the team could reap the benefits of the alliance, and it showed with the improvement on the intermediate tracks.
"It's something we kind of hit on at the end of last year, and with the rules package change, we didn't know how much of a difference it would be," Allmendinger said. "This weekend, we went back to some of the stuff we ran right at the end of the year, and I think as a whole, the team is just putting out better race cars.
"Last year we were just always behind trying to build a race car. We did the alliance so late. More than anything, we're just so much more prepared and ahead of where we were last year of building race cars and getting the bodies right and getting all those little details to go from that 20th-place car to start breaking in the top 10."
Allmendinger was the only one of the three single-car RCR alliance teams to make the Chase last year. And he nearly finished 10th in points before a problem at Homestead relegated him to 13th.
Brad Daugherty, the co-owner of Allmendinger's car, wasn't satisfied.
"I was disappointed last year," Daugherty said in January. "We should have won Sonoma. We did win Watkins Glen. We had a couple of short tracks we should have won. I'm looking forward to us competing on some short tracks, our mile-and-a-half stuff is going to be better.
"I'm looking for us to win multiple races. I know it sounds crazy. But I think we've got the people. ... We should have finished 10th [in the standings]. That's the way I look at things. Maybe I should smell the roses."
Allmendinger can see the improvement. Maybe the roses are actually blooming.
"I felt like we were a 20th-place car, 22nd-place car most of ," Allmendinger said. "It's just the stuff we are doing right now. That's what I want to do is just keep consistently having top-15 runs, and when we nail it like we did today, get inside the top 10 and get close to the front.
"We'll have certain races that we know we can be a car that can go out there and win a race, but just the stuff we're doing right now, just getting better each weekend. I love what the guys are doing back at the shop. The race cars that we're putting out are so nice. They're really pumped up about them."
Xfinity Series: Austin Dillon rules
Speaking of RCR, it enjoyed a strong day Saturday as Austin Dillon led 183 of the 200 laps on the way to a victory in the Boyd Gaming 300. He held off a late charge from Ryan Blaney, who had taken tires after getting loose and wrecking Erik Jones.
The win Saturday didn't translate into greatness Sunday as Dillon finished 20th, but don't underestimate the importance of a win. Dillon, who won the 2013 Xfinity Series title, needs to get a little bit of confidence back. Winning that race can go a long way.
Think back to Joey Logano in 2012. He won nine races in the series amid his Cup struggles. That is what Roger Penske saw when he hired Logano. Dillon shouldn't be worried about losing his ride at the team his grandfather owns. But those wins can go a long way as far as convincing sponsors to stick around and helping Dillon know that he has talent. He will run the majority of the Xfinity races this year.
"I looked at Kyle [Larson] running a lot last year, and I felt like for me, it would be better to get more laps," said Dillon, who finished 20th in the Cup standings last year and second to Larson in the rookie battle. "The Cup series is tough, and to be able to run more laps on Saturday and get more experience and the confidence that it gains to be able to win races and go out there, it just builds on everything moving forward. ... We've got a lot of work to do, and this is the start of it."
One other significant factor to the win: It was the first victory for Todd Parrott in his new role as RCR's Xfinity Series competition director.
As far as the points, Austin's brother, Ty Dillon, sits atop the standings by eight points over a trio of Roush Fenway Racing drivers: Chris Buescher (six points behind), Ryan Reed (15) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (16). Last year's champion, Chase Elliott, is fifth at 24 points back.
The series continues the West Coast swing with the Sprint Cup Series this week at Phoenix.
Camping World Truck Series: Hurry up and wait
The series isn't on the NASCAR West Coast swing. It will get back into action March 28 at Martinsville.
The break is good for the teams as they get trucks prepared for later in the year, especially for those who had wrecked trucks at Daytona and Atlanta. One guy who probably wishes the series didn't have a long break was Ben Kennedy, who tied a career best of third at Atlanta.
His other third? It came at Martinsville a year ago. His one other career top-5 also came at Martinsville (fourth in 2013).
"I really like Martinsville," Kennedy said. "It's a great track. It's a lot of bumping and banging out there, but it's fun. I'm ready to get back racing."