AJ Allmendinger's misfortune opens Cup door for Sam Hornish, Jr.
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- For the second time in seven months Penske Racing finds itself in a difficult position involving the actions of one of its drivers. AJ Allmendinger's positive drug test results have put him on the sidelines while his B sample is being tested. That has put the driver of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge in limbo.
Interestingly, Allmendinger took over a ride that became available after Kurt Busch's abrupt departure from the team last December. While Busch was a proven commodity on the race track, his anger management issues created a major problem for the team.
"Kurt Busch really forced our hand by leaving in December and we had to get the best driver available at the time," one Team Penske official told SI.com at Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto. "And at that time of the season the best driver available was Allmendinger."
Actually, David Ragan was expected to get the No. 22 ride, but Penske made the surprising call to tap Allmendinger. While many didn't think his past performances were worthy of such a high-caliber ride, Allmendinger seized the opportunity and considered it his big break.
"He just came off two top-10s in a row and I really thought we had some momentum going forward and when we got to these races the second time around with him and the team we had that potential to start that upward climb that we saw with Brad Keselowski and [crew chief] Paul Wolfe last year," Team Penske president Tim Cindric said. "I really felt that momentum was building. We had some bad luck at the beginning of the year but it showed we had some performance at various races and thought we would get results going forward."
But when the stunning news came from NASCAR Vice President Steve O'Donnell just a few hours before last Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona that Allmendinger was suspended for failing a drug test that had been administered one week earlier at Kentucky, it put the driver's career in jeopardy and sent Penske Racing scrambling.
Not only did they need to find a driver who could immediately take over the car, but had to find one with a squeaky clean image as well.
Luckily for Penske Racing, that driver was already on the team -- Sam Hornish, Jr., who ran in the Sprint Cup Series for the team from 2008-2010 with little success before stepping back to the Nationwide Series in 2011. Hornish is currently fourth in the Nationwide standings, just 35 points behind leader Ricky Stenhouse.
"Sam is the guy we wanted right away," said team owner Roger Penske. "Unfortunately he was doing a TV thing while we were trying to get him on the phone. We got a hold of him and flew him in right on time.
"It's a disappointment to have something like this happen to the team because it reflects on us and our sponsors. We support NASCAR's program not only for drivers but mechanics. We will let the process move forward. A.J. had done a good job with two top-10s the last two races; he was showing what he could do, but we have to deal with this situation right now."
On Monday, Allmendinger requested that his B sample be tested and the results of that test are pending. Hornish has been named as the driver for Sunday's Cup race at New Hampshire. There is a rare off weekend for the Cup Series on July 22 which gives Penske more time to gather the facts and await the test results before making a final decision on Allmendinger's future.
Hornish, a three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500, has already told the team that he is willing to take over the ride for as long as necessary.
"Hypothetically, I told Roger on Sunday before we knew what anything else would hold that I appreciated the opportunity to go down there and run the car on Saturday night and if they needed me to do it again I would be more than happy to do it," Hornish told SI.com Tuesday morning. "I don't have a whole lot of qualms with being able to run both series."
For now, Hornish is only committed to the Shell car for this weekend, but is likely to be the replacement if Allmendinger is suspended indefinitely.
"Our main focus is running the entire Nationwide schedule," Hornish said. "If you look back to the end of last season my reasoning to why I wasn't considered to run the 22 car is because we wanted to focus on our commitment to the Alliance Truck Parts and to the Wurth Group to run for the Nationwide championship for those two sponsors. At this point I'm helping out by filling in. We're going to do everything to the best of our abilities to not take anything away from our Nationwide car while doing the best we can on the Cup side as well to take care of Shell/Pennzoil."
Both Penske and Cindric have spoken with Allmendinger, but for obvious reasons are unable to reveal that conversation "in respect to his situation" Cindric said.
"It's real disappointing for everybody involved and we all wish it were different, but you are always in step with your sponsors, particularly your primary sponsor," Cindric said. "The partnership we have with Shell IS not only on the racing side but the business side; we have certainly kept them up to speed as much as we can with the process. Like us, they are waiting for the process to play out.
"I think they understand both situations were out of their control and the team's control. At that point it's unfortunate circumstances. There is nothing really the team or they could have seen coming. Like any team Shell will have input on the decision process but the drivers drive for the teams and represent the sponsors. They will certainly influence those things but drivers are contracted to the teams and it is the team's responsibility to ensure the sponsors get value for their money or they don't stay around too long. We as a team have to always balance that situation. Circumstances like this don't make that easy some days."
Hornish is the perfect replacement for Allmendinger for a number of reasons. By stepping away from the Cup Series and focusing his efforts on a Nationwide career he has made tremendous improvement. Hornish's victory in the Nationwide race at Phoenix last November was his first career NASCAR victory. He remains a viable contender for this year's Nationwide title.
Also, Hornish enjoyed success with the No. 22 car sponsor when Pennzoil was his sponsor at Panther Racing when he won the IndyCar Series title in 2001 and 2002. He also drove for Panther in 2003 before leaving at the end of the season to join Team Penske's IndyCar operation where he won the 2006 Indy 500 and the 2006 IndyCar Series title.
"I had the opportunity to work with them for a couple years at Panther Racing," Hornish said of Shell/Pennzoil. "We had a pretty good run together. The way I look at it though is it's obviously not the circumstances that I would have liked the opportunity to run in the 22. With sponsors thinning out and seats that are available at some point in time you take what you can get and be thankful for what you get."
Hornish is willing to run both Nationwide and Cup for the remainder of the 2012 season and would welcome the extra seat time.
"There are times in the past I wish I had been in the car on Saturday to know what I needed for Sunday," Hornish said. "I don't think it is too bad to have the extra time. I don't want to say anything out of turn but this is the first year Carl Edwards has not run all of the Saturday races he has in the past. He is not having a bad year but says he is not doing as well as he wishes he were doing."
Many drivers in Hornish's position would have balked at taking a step down from Cup to Nationwide, but one of Hornish's greatest character traits is his humility. He is not afraid to admit that sometimes an athlete has to step back in order to move forward.
"Without a doubt and he will tell you the last year or so has been productive for him to watch the Cup Series from afar after having experienced it," Cindric said. "It's like when you are in school you are sometimes not sure what you are learning until you step away and practice it and then come back. Sam will step back in the car at Loudon with a different perspective than he had last time he drove at Loudon in a Cup car."
While there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding Allmendinger's future at the moment, Penske is fortunate to have a driver to seamlessly take over his ride if he is unable to return.
But don't assume that Allmendinger is going to be released from Penske Racing. This is an operation that has stood by its drivers in the dark times such as during IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves' tax evasion trial in 2009. While some team owners would have parted ways with the driver because of negative publicity, Roger Penske stood by Castroneves and guaranteed he would get his ride back if cleared of all charges.
Once Castroneves was acquitted, he was back in the IndyCar the following day for practice at the 2009 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
He is prepared to do the same with Allmendinger.
"Roger has a reputation for resilience to a certain degree," Cindric said. "He also has a reputation for a huge amount of integrity. Ensuring those things are paramount is what we try to do as well as being fair to the situation and be as loyal as we can be to those on the team. Although it was a different circumstance there was a large degree of uncertainty in the Helio Castroneves situation that we had to walk through over a much longer period of time than I would anticipate this to be.
"It's disappointing to be in this position. But A.J. is our driver until we know more."