But as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver celebrated his 35th career Sprint Cup Series victory with a series of smoking, post-race donuts on the Martinsville front stretch, just a few feet away stood a driver with a smile nearly as wide as his.
In the aftermath of Sunday's STP 500, runner-up AJ Allmendinger basked in the afterglow of a season-best runner-up finish, simultaneously disappointed and elated with a day that brought his JTG Daugherty team everything but a checkered flag.
For Allmendinger, Sunday’s second-place showing was his best since a thrilling win on the road course at Watkins Glen International two seasons ago. For his JTG Daugherty Racing team, it signaled a return to relevancy after a 2015 season that saw them slip to 22nd in the championship standings; a nine-spot plunge from their 2014 Chase-qualifying campaign.
“I hope the fans enjoyed that,” said a giddy Allmendinger following the checkered flag. “It was a lot of fun. I was hoping for one more spot, but I passed Jimmie Johnson like five freakin’ times at Martinsville! That’s pretty cool!”
In a race characterized by rising and falling fortunes for many of the top contenders, Allmendinger was one of the day’s few constants. He qualified sixth and ran inside the Top 10 virtually all afternoon, frequently forfeiting spots on restarts before surging forward with a car that thrived on long green-flag runs. Crew chief Randall Burnett kept the California native on-track during the race’s final caution period with 16 laps remaining, and Allmendinger made the most of the opportunity, surging past runner-up Matt Kenseth on the final restart, then trailing Busch to the finish line by just .06 of a second.
Allmendinger’s Martinsville success could perhaps have been forecast. He finished second there for Team Penske in 2012 and has 10 Top-15 finishes in 16 career starts on the Virginia half-mile oval. While a strong Martinsville showing does not necessarily guarantee a return to Chase contention in 2016, Allmendinger spoke candidly about his teams’ past struggles and the numerous changes made during the offseason.
"We weren't where we wanted to be about six months ago," he admitted. "We brought in Randall Burnett, (Competition Director) Ernie Cope (and) so many different people, while we kept the same core group."
Allmendinger said he has also worked hard on himself, trying to be a better teammate.
"I didn't like myself last year," he said. "I didn't like who I was for the team. I was frustrated. I want to be better for these guys (because) when they step up, they make me better. I'm trying my butt off.”
Sunday’s performance catapulted Allmendinger from 17th to 12th in the Sprint Cup Series championship standings, solidly inside of the Chase cutoff, were the playoffs to start today. And while the Los Gatos, California native knows there’s a lot of racing to do before the Chase kicks in, Sunday’s performance gave a clear indication of what he and his single-car JTG Daugherty team are capable of.
"God, I wish we had one more spot," laughed Allmendinger post-race. "But that was pretty darn cool."