AVONDALE, Ariz.—Eight months removed from the biggest mistake of his life, AJ Allmendinger understands just how extraordinary second chances are – especially coming from the man who was forced to fire him.
Before the 2012 season even started, Allmendinger had attained a lifelong dream. He was hired to drive team owner Roger Penske’s No. 22 car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
After 17 races in the Penske ride, his career was in shambles, as Allmendinger fell victim to a singular lapse in judgment and to a random drug test, administered at Kentucky Speedway, that discovered amphetamine in his system.
Penske had no choice but to dismiss the 31-year-old driver after a “B” sample confirmed the results of the initial test. But Penske did so reluctantly, and since then the car owner, convinced that Allmendinger’s mistake was a one-time occurrence, has been working to help his former driver repair a shattered dream.
After completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program last year, Allmendinger earned reinstatement to NASCAR competition and competed in four Cup races in James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet. In that same car, Allmendinger will make his 2013 Cup debut Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Allmendinger also is schedule to drive Finch’s car on Mar. 17 at Bristol Motor Speedway and Mar. 24 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. But the five-time Champ Car winner has other options, thanks to Penske. When details are finalized, Allmendinger will drive for Penske in IndyCar races at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala., at Long Beach, Calif., and in the Indianapolis 500.
To this day Allmendinger is astounded by the level of loyalty and good will from his former — and perhaps future — boss.
“Let’s be honest. He didn’t have to keep talking to me,” Allmendinger said, as he was preparing to defend Michael Shank Racing’s title in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in late January. “There was no reason for him to. Through the process and after the process, just calling me and making sure I’m good – it’s more than I ever expected or imagined or even felt like I deserved.”
While Cup drivers were practicing for the Daytona 500, Allmendinger was two hours away in Sebring, Fla., testing an IndyCar with Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves. In a matter of hours, he was running competitive lap times.
Thankfully, the trend line is up for the young driver, who is at the same time gregarious and unpretentious. The offseason, on the other hand, had been a rough one.
“There are times at home, sure, when you wake up, and it feels like Groundhog Day every day,” Allmendinger told the NASCAR Wire Service. “You go to the gym for a couple hours, and you’re like ‘All right…’ Hit some golf balls — ‘Sweet. All right, it’s 1 o’clock. I’m done now, and I don’t know what to do.’ That’s been tough, a little bit, throughout the winter.
“I’ve been so used to being at a race shop, getting ready to go, and January comes, and your life is chaos—and now it’s not. But at the same point, the phone’s still ringing, so that’s a good thing. I look at this season…it could be a tough year, or it could be one of the best years of my life. I could go drive a lot of race cars throughout the year and have a good time doing that.
“The way I look at, I’m doing everything I can throughout a daily process to just know that whatever ride I get in, whatever opportunity I have, I’m ready to go, and I’ve given everything that I have.”
Though Penske recognizes Allmendinger’s talent behind the wheel, the car owner feels a fondness for the driver that goes far beyond lap times and race wins. For his part, Allmendinger has difficulty believing his good fortune.
“It means the world to me,” Allmendinger said. “It still kind of blows me away that he cares about me that much. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the world, because that’s a guy that you want on your side.
“I’ve learned in this world that you have no idea what’s going to happen from day to day. I just know that I messed up really bad last year—like really, really bad—and I’ll never get over the fact that I disappointed Roger Penske.
“Even if my career skyrockets, and everything is great, that will always bother me, because I never wanted to do that. But if anything ever works out where we’re working together in the future, I will never take that for granted or mess that up again.”