For decades, NASCAR was financially fueled by tobacco, something that's been compared to heroin by some scientists and physicians because of its addictive properties. The sport kicked the tobacco habit several years ago, but individual cars and races are still sponsored by alcoholic beverages, products that can affect a human body that's handling a car.
All of that is perfectly fine, since those are legal products used every day by millions of people. But it does bring into question the hard hammer that's been dropped on AJ Allmendinger for his single positive test for the prescription drug, Adderall, typically used to treat attention deficit disorder. Allmendinger lost his ride in the No. 22 Sprint Cup Series car because of that indiscretion. And even though he was reinstated by NASCAR on Tuesday following his completion in the "Road to Recovery" program, his road back to competitive racing remains uncertain. There are several voices within the sport who express serious doubt that Allmendinger will ever compete in NASCAR again.
So on one hand we have Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, in a car that displays the logo for AMP Energy drink, which the company's website states is specifically designed "to provide a kick of energy." On the other hand we have Allmendinger, who claims he took the pill because he was tired one day and was told that it was a supplement that would give him energy. It would appear that Allmendinger merely was attempting to do nothing more than achieve the same end result provided by energy drinks. Yes, he took a riskier route to achieve that effect by taking a pill, especially if he didn't know for certain what it was, but was that action truly harmful enough for him to be kicked out of NASCAR with limited chances of ever returning?
Before we go any further, it must be stated that there is absolutely nothing wrong with NASCAR having a strict drug policy and enforcing it rigorously. If a driver takes something that in any way affects his mental capacity, he is putting lives in danger. NASCAR has a list of substances that it simply does not allow the drivers to take, and Allmendinger violated those rules. Without question, he deserved some sort of punishment.
Still, in this situation the severity of the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. This is not like the case of Jeremy Mayfield, the only other Sprint Cup driver who has ever been suspended under NASCAR's drug policy; Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamine, probably the most addictive and damaging narcotic this side of crack. A driver who has such poor judgment that he would use meth even a single time deserves to be banished from a sport in which split-second decision-making must take place in vehicles that can approach speeds of 200 mph.
Since Allmendinger had never tested positive in more than five years of racing on the Sprint Cup circuit, his story of taking Adderall one time seems believable. He is guilty of extremely poor judgment -- especially since he does not have a prescription for the drug -- but there are no indications that he is any sort of drug addict. The simple fact that he has been reinstated by NASCAR less than three months after the original failed test would appear to show that this is not a person who has a serious drug problem, or even a minor one. He made an incredibly stupid mistake, but not one that should forever end his dream of being a Sprint Cup racer.
Of course, at this point NASCAR is not the entity preventing Allmendinger from racing. NASCAR enforced its rules in suspending Allmendinger, then followed its guidelines and enabled Allmendinger to prove that he should be allowed to return to the sport. As far as NASCAR is concerned, Allmendinger can be back on the track anytime. But that certainly does not remove the scarlet "D" that now hangs around his neck. Being technically allowed to race is not nearly the same thing as actually returning to the track. It will be up to sponsors and an understanding team owner to give Allmendinger a second chance.
Fortunately for Allmendinger, it appears Roger Penske might be such an owner. Penske owns the No. 22 Sprint Cup car -- which Joey Logano will drive next season -- as well as several on the IndyCar circuit. Penske basically had no choice except to remove Allmendinger from the No. 22 ride after his suspension from NASCAR, but he never sounded like he was cutting ties with Allmendinger for good. As recently as this past Saturday, before Allmendinger was officially reinstated by NASCAR, Penske offered his support for the beleaguered driver.
"He could be an option for us, for sure," said Penske to the Associated Press before the IndyCar finale in California. "He's someone we would consider. This is a speed bump in his career, but he's certainly an option for people on the NASCAR side and the Indy side."
The bigger obstacle might be in convincing sponsors to financially support a car driven by Allmendinger. Most sponsors flee from controversy, hence why you rarely hear drivers delve into sensitive topics surrounding politics or social issues. And Allmendinger's record on the track certainly does not help his cause -- he is winless in 169 Sprint Cup starts, with only five top-five finishes and 29 top-10s. In 17 races this season before his suspension, he had managed only three top-10s and was 23rd in the point standings. Sponsors might forgive a mistake made by an established winner, but they have no desire to attach their name to a tainted driver who has yet to prove he is worth the gamble.
So fair or not, it is back to square one for Allmendinger in his quest to have a successful Sprint Cup career. In fact, in many ways his chances are even slimmer now than when he first made the move to NASCAR in 2007. Back then he was a hot young racer who won five times on the Champ Car circuit in 2006. He had proven that he was a capable driver, to the point that a sponsor was willing to sign him to race immediately in the Sprint Cup Series without spending a year or so training in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
And who was the sponsor who originally gave Allmendinger his big break? None other than Red Bull energy drink.