Unfazed by threat, A.J. Allmendinger rolls on through adversity
The average NASCAR driver struggles with basic recall. A parent’s birthday, a spouse’s anniversary, the precise location of a wallet, of car keys—these answers are not so easily found when winning is a blinding obsession. But let a driver be induced into a crash by a peer and live to tell the tale. The recollection will be exacting. The details will abound. And the memory will gnaw and gnaw and gnaw until there is retribution. It’s the only way to wipe the slate clean.
A.J. Allmendinger knows. Just last Sunday, with 18 laps left in the Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway, Allmendinger spun out and wrecked Ryan Newman while battling for seventh place. Allmendinger claims it was an honest mistake, simply his car getting loose as he was racing underneath Newman through one of the 2.5-mile tri-oval’s stubborn bends. Allmendinger immediately apologized to Richard Childress Racing—an organization with which Allmendinger’s team, JTG Daugherty Racing, has a strategic alliance. And he apologized to Newman. “He’s a quasi-teammate,” says Allmendinger, who needs all the help he can get as he is JTG Daugherty’s only driver.
But it appears as if there will be some time yet before Newman shifts into a forgiving mood. After the accident, which doomed Newman to a 39th-place finish and Allmendinger to 38th after he suffered damage to his No. 47 Chevrolet’s radiator, Newman told reporters “it’s pretty obvious what happened. [Allmendinger] just ran out of talent. He has got one coming now.”
It’s enough to make you think that Allmendinger, 33, has to be looking over his shoulder heading into this Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. (Coverage begins at 1 p.m. Eastern on Fox Sports 1.) So why is he shrugging them instead?
“It’s kinda funny because … you remember the stuff that’s been done to you,” he says. “But the stuff you do to somebody else, you quickly forget. If it’s in the guy’s memory that I have to pay him back, it just is. It’s part of the sport. You’re going to be around each other at some point during a race. It is what it is. I don’t worry about it too much.”
Why would he? Just last month, he signed an extension with JTG Daugherty—the organization he has called home for the past one-and-a-half of his eight-and-a-half Sprint Cup seasons. “It’s a family atmosphere,” says Allmendinger of the 49-person outfit that is committed to sticking with one driver (him) for the foreseeable future. (JTG Daugherty ownership confirms there are no expansion plans on the horizon.) Allmendinger’s new deal runs through 2020—a number freighted with no small measure of significance for this racer.
What’s more, Allmendinger is entering the haymaking portion of the Cup schedule. Coming up are races on speedways such as Michigan, which spans two miles—an interval that Allmendinger, a renowned right turn expert, is nonetheless comfortable circling—and on road courses at Sonoma (Jun. 28) and Watkins Glen (Aug. 2), where he scored arguably the most impressive win of the 2014 Sprint Cup season while booking a debut appearance in the Chase. This stretch couldn’t have come soon enough for Allmendinger—who, after a blistering start to the season that included consecutive top-10 finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas, has averaged a finish of 21.9 in his 10 starts between Vegas and Pocono on the way to tumbling six spots below the playoff cut line, into 22nd place.
But most importantly, Allmendinger, one of the garage’s fair-haired, Cali-born good guys, came out of the Pocono wreck without denting his reputation. That’s no mean feat considering that, just three years ago, it seemed totaled beyond repair.
Here, again, the fault lay with Allmendinger. As the story goes, it all went wrong when he let a friend play amateur pharmacist and slip him something he initially knew only as an energy supplement. (He had been feeling tired.)
Allmendinger was swallowing even harder when a doping inspector showed up on his doorstep, seeking to conduct a random test. After results showed the presence of amphetamines in Allmendinger’s system, the bitter pill came to be known as something else: Adderall, a drug largely prescribed to patients with attention deficit disorder, a suspected performance enhancer with enough habit forming tendencies to earn special recognition on NASCAR’s banned substance list. “Honestly, it was just one bad mistake that I didn’t even know I was making,” he says.
News of his drug policy violation was made official on the eve of the 2012 July race at Daytona. Allmendinger, a spectator in the two Cup events prior, was suspended indefinitely. This was to be expected. There is no worse crime in NASCAR than a crime against competition. This truth was made self-evident again just two months ago, when Newman and his team were reprimanded for doctoring their tires.
Newman in particular was docked 50 points (down from 75 after appeal), a penalty that knocked him from sixth in the points down to 21st. Hence why he’s extra bent out of shape about colliding with Allmendinger at Pocono. Newman was just starting to put a little run together—averaging a finish of 9.5 in the six races leading up to Pocono, good enough to get him back above the Chase cutoff—before Allmendinger turned him into the wall.
Still, Newman at least was able to quickly rebound from that setback. When NASCAR threw the book at Allmendinger, who was also fired on the spot by Penske Racing, it didn’t appear as if he would ever race again—in NASCAR or anywhere else. He could’ve easily done what many drivers do when they feel blindsided and suss out the sinister plot behind his own misfortune. God knows, he would’ve been within his right.
Part of a lost generation of open-wheel stars, a Champ Car standout who’d strung together 14 podium appearances (including five on the top step) from 2004 through ’06, Allmendinger had just settled into a life on the stock car circuit when his suspension hit. In seven years’ time, he’d go from iffy pick to reach the grid with Red Bull Racing to stud free agent for Penske.
Rather than grope for a phantom conspiracy to avenge, something he might’ve threaded through his doomed marriage to a Ukrainian-Canadian model turned chiropractor named Lynne Kushnirenko (which was heading for divorce right around this same time), Allmendinger took responsibility. He entered NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery” initiative—a diversionary program of sorts that is engineered to rehabilitate and reinstate offenders. Within three months, he was out, with credit for time served but no full-time ride that would allow him to immediately resume his career. But by humbly serving his time, Allmendinger earned more respect than he ever could’ve imagined with team owners, who didn’t hesitate to take him on part-time in 2013.
That includes Allmendinger’s former employer, Penske, which hooked him up with rides in the Xfinity series and IndyCar—where he made six starts. By far the most impressive came at that year’s Indianapolis 500. Making his first go, Allmendinger qualified fifth, led 23 laps and finished seventh. He might’ve done even better if his seatbelt hadn’t come unbuckled late in the race.
That thrilling performance, and the many smaller moments leading up to it throughout that Month of May, is why he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on his near career-fatal mistake. Nor, for that matter, does he expend much intellectual horsepower considering why no driver has since been pulled over by NASCAR’s drug-sniffing police. “I’m just way better off for [the suspension],” he says. “I got to experience so many really good things. Who knows? I might not have been able to run the Indy 500. My relationship with [team owner] Roger Penske is better now than it was because everything was stripped away. And I met my girlfriend [an architectural design consultant named Tara Meador] in a weird way because of that, because she was in Indianapolis that week. She’s made my life way better.
“I don’t put a lot of thought into it, whether it's fair or not fair or whether there’s people doing stuff that shouldn’t be and they’re not getting caught, or they have been caught and nothing’s happened. It really doesn’t matter. All I can do is, like we all do, is focus on yourself and just try to make yourself the best person possible.”
Allmendinger was in no position to seek payback after his career crash. And yet karma took care of him anyway in August of 2013, when he signed a three-year deal to race full-time for JTG Daugherty.
A plucky single-car operation fielded by the husband-wife duo of Tad and Jodi Geschickter and the former NBA all-star center Brad Daugherty (above left in photo), JTG Daugherty would scrape together seven top five finishes—with no wins—in its first four years running in the Cup series full-time, from 2009 through ’12. Their shop appeared to be little more than a way station to the drivers under their employ.
Their first, an Aussie road course specialist called Marcos Ambrose, left them for the seemingly greener pastures of Petty Motorsports. Their second, a Cup legend named Bobby Labonte, stopped by on long march toward retirement that continues to this day. Allmendinger looked destined to be just like those two, a stopgap. “It kinda made me mad a little bit when I first signed because some of the first comments were kind of in that sense of, Well, this is just a stepping stone for you to get to a bigger team,” he says. “I was like, This is my home. This is it. I like the small team. I like the underdog role.”
He certainly looked the part at last year’s Watkins Glen race. His lot heading into that contest seemed much as it does now as he heads into Michigan—hopeless. “I felt like we were falling apart at the seams,” Allmendinger says. “We had two months of not being competitive. My best result in two-and-a-half months was 18th.”
Then came the rally. Allmendinger qualified sixth and spent most of his afternoon chasing Jeff Gordon around the circuit. Then he caught a pair of breaks in the form of Gordon suffering an electrical failure that dropped him out of the fray and behind the wall, and a vicious pileup on lap 56—triggered, incidentally, when Ryan Newman’s Chevy got loose—that stopped the race for more than an hour.
Cut to 30 laps left, and there was Allmendinger overtaking Carl Edwards for the lead. Cut to five laps to go, and there was Allmendinger racing door-to-door with Ambrose, his JTG Daugherty predecessor, and locked in turn-by-turn combat for the lead. Cut to the restart with two laps left, and there was Allmendinger again, barreling through a bend with Ambrose still filling up his passenger side window and then, suddenly, nowhere in Allmendinger’s periphery on the final lap when the checkered flag flew.
Only the finale at Homestead eclipses this moment on the list of most dramatic finishes in 2014—and even that statement struggles to stand up to the in-car video of Allmendinger rowing his way to victory over the course of those tense final laps. “When you dream about winning a race,” he says, “I didn’t dream about lucking into one. I dreamed about truly being tested and being at my best. That's kinda what those last 30 laps, once I got in the lead, were about.
“For a while, we were close on fuel, so I'm trying to run as hard as I can. I just felt like that was maybe—not even maybe, it was definitely the best driving I had ever done in my life. Because everything had to be so accurate, so perfect.”
Almost as stirring as Allmendinger’s furious finish: Team owners Richard Childress and Roger Penske were among the first to congratulate him in Victory Lane. But of course for Allmendinger, the validation he received from the Geschickters and the seven-foot Daugherty, who nearly burst through ESPN trackside studio while also covering the race as an analyst, was most satisfying of all. “They’re some of the nicest, most genuine, loving, caring, hardworking people I've ever seen,” he says of his team owners. “They work so hard, but they also let me be me, wear my heart on my sleeve, love me for who I am—my good and my bad. We’re in this together.”
This is why he keeps fighting through this more recent performance-related crash—the unfortunate consequence of results falling well short of lofty projections. The transition to the new rules package has proven unexpectedly rough. Arguably the most significant of its mandates, a reduction of horsepower, has made it difficult “to make up for the car being a little loose or a little tight,” Allmendinger says. The long summer months ahead, with its few breaks in between, don’t figure to give him and the JTG Daugherty crew much time for self-reflection.
Perhaps that’s just as well. Picking over a crash too long can make a man crazy. Allmendinger, though, sets a noble example for weathering these inevitable traumas (in NASCAR, at least)—be they self inflicted or otherwise: say your sorries (and mean them), dust yourself off and keep moving forward.