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Penske offers Allmendinger a shot at the title; can he take advantage?

It was the weekend of his 30th birthday and A.J. Allmendinger was spending it in "The Biggest Little City in the World." But the driver wasn't just there to celebrate; he was there to work. Ordained as a minister this fall through an online service, he was in Reno to perform his first wedding, that of a friend he calls "the closest thing I have to a sister."

But while he was presiding over that union, another was in the works. And fittingly, for a guy who can legally join two parties in a state known for quickie weddings, the deal would be a rush to the altar.

On Dec. 21, four days after that ceremony in Nevada, Allmendinger was introduced as the surprise replacement for Kurt Busch in Penske Racing's No. 22 Dodge. After three seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports, including two at the controls of the famed No. 43 car, Allmendinger was moving over to one of NASCAR's elite organizations.

"It's unbelievable that in that short amount of time, [it went] from just small talks to, all of a sudden: boom," Allmendinger said. "I had just come back from Florida doing a Grand-Am test for the Rolex [24] and that night I signed the contracts, and the next morning I was in a suit at [Penske's] shop."

In a crazy offseason that saw a future Hall of Famer (Mark Martin), two drivers with Chase experience on their resumes (Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne) and two race winners from a year ago (David Ragan and David Reutimann) change teams, it's Allmendinger replacing former Cup champion Busch that may be the most intriguing move of all.

It's also one that Allmendinger would have never anticipated.

To be clear, he didn't want to leave RPM. Allmendinger appeared on the verge of a breakthrough with the Ford outfit as he ended the 2011 regular season one spot out of the Chase. He finished a career-best 15th in the final driver standings behind four top-10s over the last eight races. He was also building a strong partnership with crew chief Greg Erwin, who had come aboard July 16.

"I left Homestead going 'All right, I'm excited about this. I'm looking forward to the offseason and working with Greg, and I love my guys at the race team and everybody, for the most part, was staying intact,'" Allmendinger said. "So, I wasn't ready for all this to happen."

But just five days before Christmas, Allmendinger found himself a driver without a primary sponsorship. Electronics giant Best Buy had decided to shift its millions to Roush Fenway Racing, where it agreed to a deal that would see it appear on Matt Kenseth's car for nine races and Carl Edwards' for two. Richard Petty stressed that RPM would remain a two-car operation, and Allmendinger still had two more years left on a contract extension he signed in 2010. But without a main sponsor, there were questions about where Allmendinger and the organization's flagship team stood in 2012.

Meanwhile, Penske's No. 22 car, which is backed by Shell/Pennzoil, remained open after its increasingly rocky relationship with Busch had come to a mutual end earlier in the month. Ragan, who himself became a victim of the sponsor crunch and was let go by Roush, was widely considered a leading candidate, and free agents Reutimann and Brian Vickers were also possibilities. Though once word of Allmendinger's potential availability got out, team owner Roger Penske's interest was piqued, and Allmendinger was presented with an opportunity to move to a team that could be his springboard to becoming a contender.

But before he signed, he had to make a phone call.

Allmendinger isn't going to pretend that he and Brad Keselowski were already close friends. They've been cordial enough, talking to each other during driver introductions at the track, exchanging pleasantries in the motor home lot, although it wasn't as if Allmendinger and Brad K. were making offseason travel plans. But Allmendinger respected Keselowski's opinion, and if they were going to work together on a daily basis in the long, long grind of a NASCAR season, he wanted to see what Keselowski wanted in a teammate, so he immediately phoned the driver of Penske's No. 2 ride.

"I wanted to come in knowing what his expectations were, what he needed to be better and what he thought this team needed in a driver to be better," Allmendinger said. "I called him right away and just asked him questions about what he wanted and what he expected and that was really important to me."

In Keselowski, Allmendinger sees someone who has reached the level he's striving for, and someone who a year ago was in the same position Allmendinger is now.

After previously struggling in the Sprint Cup Series, Keselowski came alive in 2011. He made the Chase for the first time on the strength of three wins and 14 top-10 finishes and ended the season fifth in the final points after never ranking higher than 25th previously. (As an interesting aside, like Allmendinger, Keselowski was driving Busch's old ride -- the Miller Lite car, which Busch drove for five seasons before giving way to Brad K. last season).

"In a short amount of time he became not just a guy that was running up front, but a legitimate championship contender," Allmendinger said. "That's my next step, to get there. ... But the next step is a big step ..."

Allmendinger believes he's in the right place to take that next step, as Penske offers advantages that he didn't have on The King's team.

While RPM has had its share of backing issues, nearly closing its doors two years ago, there are no such troubles at Penske, which boasts two of the sports most lucrative deals with Shell-Pennzoil and Miller Brewing Company. And whereas Petty was getting its chassis, engines and technical support from fellow Ford squad Roush, Penske's equipment is all built in-house in its Mooresville, N.C., headquarters.

"To me those are two real key things that stand out," Allmendinger said. "The stability of the team; the sponsors. There is no turmoil going on, everybody's focused on racing, and just having the equipment there to build everything that we have."

But with this new opportunity also comes new pressures. While Penske and Shell had their troubles with Busch before their breakup, including radio tirades and an incident with a pit reporter, Busch was still the '05 series champion with six Chase appearances, 24 career wins, 88 top-fives and 169 top-10s to his credit. Allmendinger has yet to win in 152 starts and has a career-best finish of third, which came in the 2009 Daytona 500.

"Won't lie, I'm a little nervous about it, because I know the expectations are there," he said. "But if I didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't be wasting everybody's time."

And if he can't do it? Well, Allmendinger jokes that he now has a fallback plan.

"I guess if the NASCAR thing doesn't work out I can go perform weddings in Vegas," he said.

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