AJ Allmendinger's comeback full of challenges
It is out of necessity, not ego, that AJ Allmendinger will shuttle between NASCAR and IndyCar races in the coming weeks. Seeking to revive a career that was sidetracked, he will run whatever races he can in search of a full-time job.
Allmendinger is set to compete in this weekend's IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park, his first open-wheel start since 2006. It comes two weeks after his 16th-place finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.
This is a pivotal time for the 31-year-old. If he fails to impress in either series, he could be doomed to low-budget rides. Succeed, and he could entertain better opportunities.
Allmendinger faces this challenge because of a mistake he made.
NASCAR temporarily suspended him hours before the Daytona race last July 7 after he failed a random drug test. His suspension became indefinite on July 24 when his "B'' sample also tested positive for a banned substance. Allmendinger blamed poor judgment for accepting a pill that he thought was an energy supplement from a friend of a friend. Instead, the pill was Adderall, an amphetamine that is commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Allmendinger did not have a prescription for Adderall. His lapse in judgment cost him his Cup ride at Penske Racing, where he was a teammate of eventual series champion Brad Keselowski.
"It was a decision I had to make professionally, not one I wanted to make personally '' car owner Roger Penske said of letting Allmendinger go.
NASCAR reinstated Allmendinger on Sept. 18, but he did not have a job. He returned to NASCAR in October at Charlotte Motor Speedway as part of the domino effect after Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped out of his ride because of concussion symptoms. Regan Smith replaced Earnhardt and Allmendinger drove in place of Smith for Phoenix Racing during that stretch.
Even after Allmendinger lost his ride with Penske, the driver and team owner kept in touch and Penske brought him to an IndyCar race last year. They completed a deal last month to put Allmendinger in a Penske car for two IndyCar races: Barber and the Indianapolis 500.
"I think he was just coming of age,'' Penske said earlier this year about remaining in contact with Allmendinger. "I told AJ that I would be glad to talk to a sponsor because certainly there was nothing that he did on the track or off the track, other than that one situation, that would make me feel any different.''
Think about that. The man who let Allmendinger go remained willing to support him.
"I look at, more than anything, the fact that Roger Penske himself made the phone call and wanted me back in one of his race cars, and whether it's an IndyCar or stock car or sports car or whatever, to me, just that phone call itself means more than getting in the race car,'' Allmendinger said. "So that's been, for me, just confidence-building and it puts me at ease that everything I went through and worked hard to get to has been worth something. As a person, I'm a a lot better for what I went through.''
Allmendinger has had not it easy since he won five consecutive races during the 2006 Champ Car season. Seeing that series' future in doubt, he looked to NASCAR and landed with Red Bull Racing. It was not the best pairing because both the team and Allmedinger lacked NASCAR experience. Red Bull ran its first Cup season in 2007, as did Allmendinger, who failed to qualify for the season's first four races. In all, he did not qualify for 19 of the 36 races that year or record his first top-30 finish until September. In 2008, Red Bull let him go before the season ended. Allmendinger later drove for Richard Petty Motorsports from 2009 to 2011, and the toughest trial was late in the 2010 season when questions persisted about the cash-strapped team's ability to make it to races.
Last year seemed to bring Allmendinger a chance to prove himself with Penske Racing after the team gave him an opportunity by parting with Kurt Busch. But then came his mistake and suspension, and he was left to scrape rides together in order to keep racing.
So far this year, Allmendinger has run three of the first five Cup races for Phoenix Racing, finishing between 11th and 16th for the underfunded team. Now his focus turns to IndyCars, but the transition has been challenging.
"After I drove it at Sebring (in a February test) I was like, 'Maybe it will all come back natural to me,''' Allmendinger said. "It felt like I was riding a unicycle. I almost forget what it feels like to drive a Champ car, it's been so long.
"I think the biggest thing for me is just the braking force of these cars and just everything in general. Stock car racing, training, you're working on just that mental aspect of being in a car for four hours in the heat, especially during the summer and that wearing on you and being able to be strong enough for that.
"In IndyCar obviously, it's physically demanding. I think for me, that's the biggest thing is trying to get back into that and that kind of mentality.''
These are the challenges he faces if he hopes to have a meaningful career instead of one overshadowed by unfulfilled promise.