Allmendinger caps big offseason with Daytona win

AJ Allmendinger won five races during the 2006 season in Champ

Car, then walked away hoping to launch a new career in NASCAR.

He was at the top of his game when he left open-wheel, and

figured he’d make a smooth and successful transition to stock

cars.

Instead, he suffered through a miserable five years.

Now, in what seems like a blink of an eye, it has all turned

around for Allmendinger.

No driver has had a better offseason than ”The `Dinger,” who

landed the ride of a lifetime right before Christmas when Penske

Racing picked him to fill the seat left suddenly open when the team

split with former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch.

Then he opened the 2012 racing season with an impressive victory

in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Allmendinger was the anchor for Michael

Shank Racing, and used a gritty final stint – he was behind the

wheel almost three hours at the end – to give longtime friend Shank

his first victory in nine tries in the prestigious endurance

event.

It was Allmendinger’s first major racing victory since he walked

away from Champ Car at the end of the 2006 season.

”It’s always cool to be me,” Allmendinger quipped when asked

about the last five weeks.

Then he quickly turned serious.

”No, I’m just kidding. The last five years, it’s actually

(stunk) to be me.”

It was indeed a struggle as Allmendinger went from the top of

one series to the bottom of another.

On paper, a deal with upstart Red Bull Racing seemed too good to

pass up. The deep-pocketed team was making its entrance into NASCAR

and it wanted Allmendinger to drive one of its two cars.

It was a disaster from the very beginning.

Red Bull wasn’t ready to race in the elite Sprint Cup Series,

and even worse, it had no development plan for Allmendinger, who

was brand new to stock cars. Most open-wheel drivers have been

eased into NASCAR with races in either the second-tier Nationwide

Series, the Truck Series, or the non-NASCAR affiliated ARCA

Series.

But Allmendinger was thrown right to the wolves, and it became

obvious immediately that the team and the driver were in very much

above their heads.

Both Allmendinger and teammate Brian Vickers struggled to even

qualify for races that season, and missing out on the events

further slowed Allmendinger’s development. It didn’t take long for

him to wonder if he’d made a huge mistake in moving to NASCAR. But

the open-wheel leagues were in turmoil, and not even after the

merger of Champ Car with the IndyCar Series did Allmendinger know

for sure where he belonged.

He called that 2007 season, ”Hell. Honestly, it was the worst

year of my life when it came to my career.

”There were plenty of times in my bus on Friday, (after)

missing a race, it was either, `Should I go back to IndyCar or slit

my wrists?”’ he said. ”It sounds kind of over the top, but I knew

I wanted to be in the Sprint Cup Series. That’s where the best of

the best was. With the two series still split, I had done what I

did in Champ Car, and at the point, the IRL wasn’t appealing to me.

I had a great opportunity to go to the Sprint Cup Series.

”It was just a tough couple of years. The last few years have

been tough.”

He was eventually tossed aside at Red Bull, and landed with

Richard Petty Motorsports, where he won a pole and led 232 laps

over the last two years. He also became consistent, and notched 10

top-10 finishes, winding up 13th in points when the 12-driver Chase

for the Sprint Cup championship field was set.

Even so, his future was unclear.

Best Buy decided to pull its sponsorship from RPM, and the team

didn’t have the funding to field a car for Allmendinger. Then Busch

split with Penske, and team owner Richard Petty suggested

Allmendinger to Roger Penske for his suddenly open seat.

”When you part with a driver with the skills that Kurt has, you

don’t just pick up the phone book and find someone who fits into

his shoes,” said Penske, who was familiar with Allmendinger’s work

in Champ Car.

”He was a great open-wheel driver,” Penske added. ”He beat

Will Power a couple of times, and you don’t beat Will Power if

you’re not a pretty good shoe. We had a couple other people we were

looking at, (but) knowing what we could give him and how our

sponsors were very happy to have AJ, it was a whole package.”

Now Allmendinger is with a team that won five races last year

and put both Busch and Brad Keselowski into the Chase. He knows

it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and hopes Sunday’s win at

Daytona is the first of many trips to Victory Lane.

”The last few years have been tough,” he said. ”I feel like

the last two years I’ve at least gotten a good rhythm, and it makes

me feel good to know that a guy like Roger Penske can look at my

talent and say, `You know what? He might not have a Cup win and you

have (sponsor) Shell/Pennzoil that’s used to winners and champions

in their cars, but if we give him the right stuff he might be able

to do that.”’

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