MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Five years of doubts, questions and angst scar AJ Allmendinger's past. Yet, what he saw in front of him Sunday was hope, opportunity and redemption.
While few drivers have had an easy road to Victory Lane -- let alone to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- Allmendinger's quest has seemed as long and harrowing as Odysseus' path home in The Odyssey.
Allmendinger left open-wheel racing for a new Cup team in 2007, but that team (Red Bull Racing) was ill-prepared to provide him with the training he needed in stock cars. Once he started showing signs he could compete in Cup, he was let go. Allmendinger was then taken in by a team (Gillett Evernham Motorsports) that would see its sponsorship dwindle and existence teeter, and even when things stabilized, Allmendinger's future fell into doubt due to lack of sponsorship.
Then, last offseason, a team recently divorced from its mercurial but successful driver plucked Allmendinger and gave him the chance to show what he could do. This was as much a test as a job. Not only would Allmendinger be with a team (Penske Racing) that made NASCAR's title Chase last year, but also he would be working with a crew chief (Todd Gordon) new to the Cup series. Could Allmendinger prove he was as talented as he had shown in open-wheel racing?
As Allmendinger sat second on the final restart Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, he had race leader Ryan Newman beside him and a chance of victory before him.
"First time I've ever had a chance to win a Sprint Cup race," said Allmendinger, who was ill earlier in the day.
If this had been a Disney movie, Allmendinger would have won, placing the track's trophy, a grandfather clock, near the Rolex 24 at Daytona trophy he won in January. Real life rarely mirrors Disney, though. Still, his second-place finish was a career-best, topping the third-place effort he had in the 2009 Daytona 500.
Sunday's finish marked only the fifth time he's finished in the top five in a Cup race. In fact, he's barely had more top-10 finishes (27) than times he's failed to qualify (22), although many of those failures occurred during his rookie season.
While some will suggest Allmendinger was lucky to be in a position to win his first Cup race Sunday -- and he was -- don't forget: several times this season he's had a fast enough car to contend for a win or a top-five finish and something has happened. Perhaps he's owed some luck. If nothing else, he deserves something for his perseverance given what he's already endured this season.
He finished 34th in the Daytona 500 after he ran into Newman's car, which had suddenly stopped on pit road when it lost a wheel. A fuel-pump problem impacted Allmendinger and teammate Brad Keselowski at Las Vegas, giving Allmendinger a 37th-place finish. A week later he led 54 laps at Bristol but a mechanical issue dropped him back to 17th.
Heading into Martinsville, Allmendinger was 26th in the driver standings, between Jeff Gordon (25th) and Kasey Kahne (27th).
Many still expect Gordon and even Kahne to contend for a Chase spot, but few see Allmendinger as a threat. Allmendinger doesn't have time to worry about what others outside the team think.
"I put a lot of pressure on my shoulders, because I know these guys that are on this No. 22 car, they are used to running up front every weekend and they are used to having a chance to win races," Allmendinger said. " I put that on me to go out there and step up to the game.
"So ultimately, it's just myself and Todd Gordon. It's his first year in Cup. Six races in Cup now. Obviously, we would like to go out there and set the world on fire, but it's not that easy."
Gordon said when he talked to Allmendinger before the season, Allmendinger noted that he runs well at Phoenix and Martinsville but struggles at Las Vegas, Bristol and Auto Club Speedway. Yet, it's kind of been the reverse of that this year.
As Allmendinger and Gordon discussed the car and racing strategy Friday evening, Gordon told his driver: "'You can run fast here, I just need to figure out what you need in the race car to run fast.'
"We sat down and really talked about some things and looked at what he likes in the bigger track stuff and identified some things we can do differently," Gordon recalled.
Allmendinger and Gordon were rewarded for that work Sunday, although it wasn't until the second half of the event that Allmendinger moved into the top 10.
A caution for David Reutimann's wounded car, which stopped on the track, bunched the field. On the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, Clint Bowyer got underneath Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. They ran three-wide in Turn 1 for the lead and bounced off each other, causing Johnson and Bowyer to wreck.
While Bowyer's three-wide move didn't work. Allmendinger's did. Restarting on the inside of row 4, he dived under Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex heading into Turn 1, bounced off Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car as they tried to get by the spinning car of Bowyer, ran over the curb in the corner and came out of the melee second.
That set up the final restart and put Allmendinger on the front row with Newman, the leader, on his inside. After struggling throughout the weekend, Allmendinger admitted he would have been happy with a ninth-place finish, which is where he was on the next-to-last restart. But on that final restart he sat two laps from victory. Two laps from pushing the struggles of the past five years further away and enjoying the reward for making it through those years.
With all that in front of him, why didn't Allmendinger wreck Newman or at least hit him?
"He actually got a good drive off [Turn] 2," Allmendinger said of Newman. "I would have had to wreck both of us to get into him in [Turn] 3. I don't want to win like that. That's not the way I race."
While it wasn't a win, the runner-up finish was just as a good for a team needing a lift as the series heads into an off weekend. The break gives them some extra time to enjoy their finish, which Todd Gordon said builds confidence for the team.
"If you watch momentum swings throughout this garage, momentum is built from having the belief we're going to win, having the belief we're going to be successful," Gordon said. "Runs like this feed the psychology of driver, crew chief and crew members. When you run well, you walk that way, you think that way. It's a psychology of it.''
For Allmendinger, it just felt good and he hadn't felt like that too often the past five years.
NASCAR Bracketology Update
Cinderella is gone, leaving a NASCAR Bracketology Final Four featuring some of the strongest teams after a wild race Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt will meet Martin Truex Jr. in the Final Four. Whoever finishes the best at Texas in two weeks advances to the championship. The other semifinal matchup pits Tony Stewart vs. Denny Hamlin.
Earnhardt, the defending champion of NASCAR Bracketology, was on the verge of being eliminated by Jimmie Johnson in the Richard Petty Regional Final.
Jimmie Johnson ran second while Earnhardt was third in the final laps. On the next-to-last restart, Johnson was wrecked when three cars battled for the lead. Earnhardt drove through the incident to finish third, while Johnson placed 12th.
Truex finished fifth, tying his career best at Martinsville, to eliminate No. 1 seed Greg Biffle, who finished 13th, in the David Pearson Regional Final.
In a matchup of last year's Martinsville winners, Tony Stewart eliminated Kevin Harvick in the Junior Johnson Regional Final. Stewart finished seventh; Harvick 19th.
Denny Hamlin survived a scare from No. 22 seed Aric Almirola, the lowest remaining seed in the 32-driver tournament, to advance. Hamlin finished sixth, while Almirola placed eighth.