Allmendinger glad to be back on track

AJ Allmendinger is still paying for a major mistake, but is happy to get the chance to get back in a car again.

AJ Allmendinger is thrilled to be back in a race car.

For the first time in six seasons, there was no preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway in a stock car. There have been no trips to shop to get his seat fitted in the new Generation 6 car. Heck, Dinger even missed participating in this week’s annual Charlotte Motor Speedway media tour.

“You laugh and think, ‘Yeah, the media tour is annoying,’ ” Allmendinger said. “But gosh, I’d still like to be there.”

Allmendinger still is paying the price for the foolish mistake he made last June that resulted in NASCAR suspending him for testing positive for Adderall. Yes, the 30-year-old racer successfully completed the road to recovery, but that doesn’t mean his path back to racing has been easy.

After signing a lucrative contract with Penske Racing before the 2012 Sprint Cup season and winning the Rolex 24 Hours one year ago, Allmendinger’s career was coming together.

Still, he struggled with his new Cup team and a rookie crew chief who had never called a 500-mile race. While qualifying was respectable — he started on the front row three times in the first 10 races — adjusting the car throughout the course of the event was a challenge for the crew.

Pressure mounted throughout the season as the No. 22 Dodge failed to provide the anticipated results early on. Despite putting on a remarkable show in the Sprint All-Star qualifier in May — where Dinger won the pole but suffered a flat tire and drove from last to finish second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. — six weeks later his world came crashing down.

“Once I got over the whole thing with the suspension and being fired, it became about figuring out what I was going to do next,” Allmendinger said.

Although Allmendinger received clearance to race from NASCAR on Sept. 19, he remained sidelined from competition for more than three weeks before James Finch offered him a ride for the race at Charlotte. Allmendinger raced in four of the final six events of the season for Finch.

With the support he’s received from family and friends in the motorsports community — including team owners Roger Penske, Michael Shank and Finch — Allmendinger is steadily forging a comeback. From his earliest days in go-karts 25 years ago, racing is all he’s ever known.

“Every day is an up and down day, but it’s nice to be at a racetrack, for sure; that makes it a lot easier,” Allmendinger said. “To be back with guys that have been so close to me — especially Mike. I look at him like Roger, but obviously he’s more like a brother or a best friend to me and it’s been like that the last few years.

“I’d do anything for that guy and he would do anything for me. To be back with him and all these guys that I’ve seen, honestly, for like the last seven years on this race team. He takes such good care of his guys it just makes you feel good.”

Allmendinger hopes to reward Shank — and the Michael Shank Racing team — with a repeat win in this weekend’s Rolex 24. Last year, Allmendinger closed the 24-hour event by driving the No. 60 Ford to victory lane, but that seems like a lifetime ago.

“Sure, there are times at home that I wake up and it feels like Groundhog Day — every day,” Allmendinger said. “You go to the gym for a couple of hours and you’re like, ‘All right.’ Hit some golf balls, ‘Sweet.’ OK, and then it’s like one o’clock and I’m done and it’s like, ‘Well, I’m done, what do I do?’

“That’s been tough during the winter. I’ve been so used to being at a race shop or getting ready to go. January comes and your life is usually chaos — and now it’s not. But the phone is still ringing, so that’s a good thing and I’m just trying to piece it together.”

Perhaps Allmendinger’s biggest surprise throughout this ordeal is the encouragement he’s received from Penske. Whether it’s the weekly phone calls or the testimonials the Captain has offered to provide on Allmendinger’s behalf, the driver has learned tremendous lessons in character.

On Wednesday, Penske acknowledged that Allmendinger’s release following the positive drug test was “a decision I had to make professionally, not one I wanted to make maybe personally, but one I had to make.”

Penske insisted that he feels responsible “to try to help him get back on his feet, because I think he’s got a lot of talent, and I think he was just coming of age with us.”

“I told James [Finch] that I’d be glad to talk to a sponsor, because certainly there was nothing that he did on the track or off the track, other than the one situation, that would make me feel any different,” Penske added.

As an aspiring racer, Allmendinger grew up worshipping Penske and his accomplishments in motorsports. He acknowledged that the greatest disappointment in his career was “letting Roger down.” Still, Penske’s ability to lead by example had a significant effect on Allmendinger.

“It’s one of the things you read and hear from everybody else what a stand-up guy he is,” Allmendinger said. “That saying, ‘Once you’re in the family, you’re in the family.’ But until it happens to you — let’s be honest he didn’t have to keep talking to me. There really was no reason for him to.

"Just through the process and after the process to call me and make sure that I’m good and all the quotes you read, like from James [Finch] that if they’re close to a sponsor he’ll try to close the deal — all of that — it makes me feel good. It’s more than I ever expected or ever imagined or felt like I deserved. He’s just an amazing guy.

“I’m so happy that he could finally win the Cup championship. Obviously he’s done so much in IndyCar. Everything you could do in IndyCar times 10, but to finally get that Cup championship because that whole organization has worked so hard.

"It was kind of bittersweet because I wish I could have been there to share it, but to be able to watch it on TV was so amazing. It makes me feel good that he does all that, he’s got all of his drivers and he still cares about me. It means more to me than any job that I’ve had in my life.”

Allmendinger and his MSR teammates will start sixth on Saturday in the DP class. The team still is searching for speed to compete against the two Ganassi Racing BMWs, which are nearly a second and a half faster than their Fords. While sandbagging is commonplace in qualifying, Allmendinger hopes that Ganassi “is showing all of their hand.”

“No one is as good as they are right now,” Allmendinger said. “But nobody really shows their hand until the race. That’s kind of what we did last year, so you’re not really sure. Yesterday, I was really disappointed because I couldn’t get any more speed out of the car. Whether I led us in the wrong direction, we just didn’t feel like we hit it yesterday. But at night, the 6 car had good speed and we kind of learned from them.

“[MSR teammates] Justin [Wilson], Oz [Negri] and the guys got in there and made it better. This morning, just in the couple of laps, I felt the car was better. So I think we’ll be good for the race competitively. Where we’ll stack up against Ganassi and everybody else, I’m just not sure. It’s tough to go out and defend it — especially how Ganassi has stepped up their game. But if you can be there with a couple of hours to go, you’ve got a chance.”

As for opportunities after the Rolex 24, Allmendinger is keeping his options open. For now, driving the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet at Phoenix International Raceway on March 3 is tentatively next on his schedule — and possibly three of the next four Cup races to follow.

Allmendinger isn’t sure whether he’ll have any seat time in the new cars before the race. If not, he’ll “just figure it out” once the team gets to the track. At this stage in his career, Allmendinger can’t afford to be demanding. He’s learned to be grateful for the breaks he’s afforded.

“It’s a tough situation because both of us want to do it,” Allmendinger said. “If we could do it full-time we would. I really enjoy those guys, and I think their stuff is going to be pretty good. Obviously, they got behind last year with everything that happened, but they have a couple of new cars and I’m looking forward to it. I haven’t driven the new car yet, but talking to Marcos [Ambrose] and everybody, it seems like they like it. It seems fast. I’ll be excited once we get to that point and be able to do that.

“I look at this season — it could be a tough year or it could be one of the best years of my life. I could drive a lot of different race cars throughout the year and have a good time doing that. I’m doing everything that I can throughout a daily process just to know whatever ride that I get in, whatever opportunity I have, I’m ready to go and have given it everything that I have.”

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