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Dinger making most of second chance
From the moment AJ Allmendinger strolled onto the Penske Racing campus 18 months ago and saw the winning banners and memorabilia from IndyCar, NASCAR and sports cars hanging from the walls, he somehow wanted to contribute.
Last Saturday, when Allmendinger won the Nationwide Series race at Road America — his first NASCAR victory — he finally got the opportunity to be part of Roger Penske’s motorsports legacy.
“When he wins, he’s got the posters up of each win,” Allmendinger said after his win. “I’ve walked through that place for a year now. I liked to have had a lot of them — but I just wanted one. I thought the Indy 500 one was going to be cool to have when I was leading the race, but that wasn’t meant to be.
“I just wanted one of the posters in there at least. I wanted to show that I was a small part of this race team that actually did something great for Roger. It’s cool to have that now.”
It was here that Allmendinger tested positive for Adderall during the Kentucky Speedway NASCAR weekend almost one year ago. The following week, just hours before the Daytona race, he was suspended from competition.
At the time, Allmendinger wasn’t certain whether he would ever race — let alone win — in NASCAR.
Even after Allmendinger failed his drug test, Penske made it clear, “I’m more concerned about the individual than the situation, because that’ll take care of itself. There’ll be facts and figures, and there’ll be an outcome.”
The "outcome" wasn’t what anyone hoped for when the second “B” test came up positive on July 24, as well. But even after Penske Racing released Allmendinger, in accordance with the company’s drug policy, Roger Penske’s concern for his driver never waned.
Neither did Allmendinger’s commitment to come back.
Dinger was in the closing stages of NASCAR’s Road to Recovery substance abuse program when Penske invited him to attend the IndyCar season finale at Fontana on Sept. 15. That’s initially when the rumors circulated of Allmendinger’s possible return to open wheel.
Three days later, NASCAR was satisfied that Allmendinger completed the program and reinstated him in the sport.
The following month, James Finch asked Allmendinger to drive the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevy at Charlotte — the start of a four-race stint that then continued this season.
Despite Finch’s generosity, nothing could compare to the opportunity Allmendinger received from Penske. After defending his Rolex 24 title with Michael Shank Racing at Daytona in January and finishing third, Penske invited the 31-year-old racer to return to his open-wheel roots. He tested at Sebring and raced Birmingham and Long Beach in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. For Dinger, that was “a dream come true.”
“What Roger has done for me career-wise is great,” Allmendinger said. “But personally, it’s meant a lot more to me, just making sure that after everything that happened last year that I was OK. I wouldn’t have thought twice if he just wrote it off and not called and went on. He’s got so much going on in his life. But he just kept checking up on me. I didn’t expect anything from it — it was just nice to have a friend, somebody I could bounce ideas off of, life ideas and figure out where I was going.
“Once the IndyCar thing started happening for Indy that was a bit of a surprise — a great kind of motivation to really be focused this year."
Penske’s plan must have worked. Thursday before Indy, The Captain put another carrot in front of Allmendinger — the possibility of returning to a Penske Racing NASCAR ride in the Nationwide Series. Allmendinger led 23 laps and finished seventh in his Indy debut.
“It’s a big moment for him,” Brad Keselowski said of his former teammate’s win on Saturday. “He went through a real tough circumstance. It’s a big moment for him to overcome that. It just shows some of his fighting spirit, and that’s something he should be proud of, too.”
Although Allmendinger’s luck ran out at Belle Isle on the first lap of each of the IndyCar doubleheaders, he never has felt anything but acceptance from his fellow Penske Racing teammates. That wasn’t lost on him with crew chief Jeremy Bullins and the No. 22 Nationwide Series team, who won with both Keselowski and Joey Logano earlier this year.
“From the time I got to VIR (Virginia International Raceway, in May), he made me feel like the best driver there,” Allmendinger said. “He gave me that confidence to say, ‘We’re going to win this thing.’ ”
“Everybody on this race team, everyone in this organization from top to bottom, they never looked down on me or put me aside or treated me differently. When I came back, I felt like they wanted me back. The IndyCar side of it wanted me. As soon as I showed up to test VIR, they seemed excited. It just meant the world to me, and this is the only way that I could repay them.”
Last weekend’s run at Road America has captured the attention of many potential suitors in the NASCAR garage. Six-time Sprint Cup champion owner Richard Childress says Allmendinger “has always been a candidate in my eyes.”
“I’ve looked at AJ the entire time he’s been in NASCAR,” Childress said. “He’s a talented, talented race car driver. He deserves to be in a top car over here. He’s proved himself, and I’m proud of Roger Penske for giving him the opportunities he’s given him. It’s the kind of man Roger Penske is, if he believes in someone, believes something, he’ll back him to the fullest and he does with those guys.
“I’m so proud of AJ. He’s so determined and he wants to prove himself. He deserves to be in a top car over here.”
Although Allmendinger was supposed to compete in IndyCar next weekend for Penske, his struggles at Belle Isle eliminated the planned car inventory for that race. However, Penske still hopes to run Dinger in the season finale at Fontana on Oct. 19 and in the Nationwide Series at Mid-Ohio on Aug. 17.
“I hope somehow, some way I can contribute even more to the walls at Penske Racing — more now than ever after everything that Roger has done for me,” Allmendinger said. “At Indy, I thought I was going to have the chance to do that. At Detroit, I was down because I felt I let him down. I just made a couple of mistakes — not from a lack of effort — that were costly. To be able to give back and get a victory for him was really, really special.”
Beyond the four races he has remaining with JTG/Daugherty Racing and final three races scheduled for Phoenix Racing, Allmendinger’s plans are up in the air. His auditioning will continue this weekend at Kentucky Speedway, where he finished ninth, despite his drug test hanging in the balance. Allmendinger refuses to dwell on what happened last year. He’s focused on moving forward and taking his career — and his life — “one day at a time.”
“I’ve always given everything I’ve had out there, so it would be impossible for me to step up my effort,” Allmendinger said. “But I feel like I’m more well-rounded now. There’s still a ways to go to get where I want to be. Do any of us really feel like we’re where we want to be? Probably not, but the process of getting there, I think I’m more in tune with.”
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