AJ Allmendinger at peace 1 year after suspension

AJ Allmendinger’s life changed forever a year ago, in the hours

before the race at Daytona International Speedway.

NASCAR officials had just kicked him out of the track,

suspending Allmendinger indefinitely for failing a random drug

test. As his peers prepared for one of the biggest races of the

year, and Sam Hornish Jr. scrambled to get from Charlotte, N.C.,

back to Daytona to drive his car, Allmendinger was reeling in

seclusion.

The failed drug test sidelined Allmendinger for more than three

months and ultimately cost him his job with Penske Racing. But it

also spurred a great deal of introspection for Allmendinger, who

returned to Daytona a year later a different person.

He headed into Saturday night’s race happier than he’s been in a

long time and at peace with the twists and turns of his career.

”I’ve worked hard to get back in the sport, and I’ve also

worked hard as a person to try to find myself and figure out how to

be better,” Allmendinger said. ”I’ve said many times, at the end

of the day, all you have is being able to look yourself in the

mirror and like what you see. By the middle of last year, I didn’t

like myself. I was stressed.

”Now? The walls are torn down. This is me right now. This is

it.”

Allmendinger is tired of talking about his ”comeback.” He

wants people to stop dwelling on the biggest mistake of his life,

and his long road back into racing.

But he’s aware that his audience has grown over the last 12

months, and that he’s gained a following of fans eager to root for

an underdog getting a second chance. Allmendinger owes much of that

to Roger Penske, who stuck by the driver even after firing him.

Penske gave Allmendinger a ride in the Indianapolis 500, and so

far four other IndyCar Series starts. He also hired Allmendinger to

drive the Nationwide Series race last month at Road America, where

Allmendinger scored the first win of his NASCAR career. His

effusive victory speech was emotional and from the heart, and when

Allmendinger kissed a television camera in a message for Penske,

the team owner was watching.

”He said he was happy for me, and he told me he thought it was

one of the best jobs I’d done,” Allmendinger said. ”That meant a

lot. He was so pumped up about it. He was out of the country and he

had to watch it at 2:30 in the morning on some British television

station, and he was really excited about it. For me, and obviously

I’d like to win more races for him, but to be able to finally get

that one and say `Thank you,’ which I’ve said a million times over,

that was just the best way to say thank you.”

Allmendinger, who is running a handful of Sprint Cup Series

races for Phoenix Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, also is

scheduled to drive for Penske in the Nationwide race at

Mid-Ohio.

”What this country is based on is being able to have a second

chance,” Allmendinger said. ”I feel like I was open and honest

about it, and I needed to take some time for myself. When people

ask if I think I deserve a second chance from Roger – no, because

Roger didn’t owe me anything and I didn’t deserve a second chance.

But I always say if you make a mistake and you learn something from

it, then the mistake was worth something.

”But if you make a mistake, and you keep making the same

mistake over and over, well, that’s your own stupidity. I’ve worked

hard not to repeat my mistakes.”

Allmendinger now takes his racing career week-by-week, piecing

together what he can but trying his best to enjoy every moment he

has at the track. There’s been discussion with the Penske

organization about running the season finale at Fontana, but he

understands that with Helio Castroneves currently leading the

points that a third car for Allmendinger could take away from a

title run.

So Allmendinger is waiting to see what opportunities are out

there for him.

”I don’t have a really good answer for that yet. If Roger

offers me something full-time next year, no matter what it is, I’d

be stupid not to take it,” Allmendinger said. ”Other than that, I

look at it, something full-time would be the best option. But I

just want a place where people really want me there. I can enjoy

the guys, enjoy the team atmosphere.

”I’m looking for a team I enjoy being around, having fun. We’re

all going to be stressed at times, we all want to perform. But I

just want to have fun and enjoy going to the race track every

weekend. Whatever series that’s in, a chance to win or at least be

competitive, that’s all I want. I think people want me to say I

want to be in NASCAR or I want to be in IndyCar. It’s the opposite.

It’s not about that. It’s about enjoying it. Having fun with it.

Racing.”