Opinion: Allmendinger's Second Chance

AJ Allmendinger

"All I can do is to grow from this, respect what I have and where I need to get to in life – not just as a racecar driver.” (Photo: Getty Images)

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For many of us, the start of a new year typically comes with a resolve to improve our behavior and do something better than we did it during the previous 12 months.

Lose weight, spend more time in the gym, read more books, watch less TV … those kinds of things. For NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger, it’s taking full advantage of a second chance at the livelihood he loves.

His career took a jarring, unexpected detour six months ago. Allmendinger, who had one of the most prized rides in the Sprint Cup Series garage with Penske Racing, was suspended for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. As he puts it, “all the hell in my life began with the July Cup race at Daytona.”

But as a testament to the lure of second chances – in life and behind the wheel of a racecar – “Dinger” was back at Daytona International Speedway a couple weeks ago testing a sports car and dreaming of a full-time return to the Sprint Cup Series.

“I’m fortunate to be back here,” Allmendinger said, preparing to defend his race win of a year ago in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. “Priorities are important, learning how to deal with things. Nobody’s perfect. I’m definitely not perfect. All I can do is to grow from this, respect what I have and where I need to get to in life – not just as a racecar driver.”

Statements such as this reflect a wisdom and clarity of thought that carries well beyond Allmendinger’s 31 years. He knows he screwed up and he knows he’s lucky to get a second chance.

Throughout the dark days of July and August, Allmendinger quickly found the right path to follow in getting his life back on the rails. He didn’t sit down to shed his guilt with Oprah, nor did he work the phones on talk radio to plead his case.

Allmendinger enrolled in NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, graduated quickly and was back in the sport in October – albeit on a limited basis. You need friends to help you through times such as this and Allmendinger singles out one such ally: Michael Shank, who owns the racecar he’ll drive later this month at Daytona.

“It’s not even like he’s a team owner or anything like that,” Allmendinger notes. “He’s been more of a best friend … like a big brother to me – especially when I was suspended.”

Today, Allmendinger may have no greater supporter than NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, who is openly praising the formerly disgraced driver as someone who accepted responsibility for his actions, understood the consequences of exclusion and chose the right path back to inclusion.

Allmendinger quietly rolled up his sleeves, worked hard and did what was expected of him.

Do you want to know what he did New Year’s eve?

“I went to bed at 9:30 because I didn’t want to spend any more time on 2012,” Allmendinger says.  “I was done with it.”

Thankfully, NASCAR is not done with Allmendinger. As 2013 begins, he’s back behind the wheel of a racecar and has a NASCAR deal to drive for Phoenix Racing.

“I want to be back in the Cup Series because I’ve got a lot of unfinished business,” Allmendinger said. “I reflect on this every day – all the good decisions and all the bad decisions I’ve made. Last year was the toughest time of my life, but there’s a lot worse happening in the world.

“I’m healthy, I’m back in a racecar and I’m excited about it. There are things that I have to grow from.”

So let’s all raise a glass or two to those New Year’s resolutions … to friends, family and – oh, yes – those second chances.

Who doesn’t deserve one?

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