Allmendinger Gets the Message
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on June 26, 2013 | 12:27 P.M. EST
AJ Allmendinger is making the most of his second chance with Penske Racing, here celebrating Saturday's Nationwide Series win at Road America. (Photo: Getty Images)
Similar advice was dispensed by others, but the message resonated from one particular person. It was what AJ Allmendinger needed with his ride gone, career in question and goals unfulfilled.
Allmendinger’s life turned a year ago at Kentucky Speedway, where he failed a drug test. What he thought was an energy supplement pill was Adderall. He was pulled from his ride a week later at Daytona when the test results came back. NASCAR suspended him before reinstating him, upon completion of a program, two months later.
The advice that meant so much, though, came from the same man who told Allmendinger that he would no longer drive his Sprint Cup car.
"There are people a lot bigger than you are that have issues and have bounced back," Roger Penske told Allmendinger last year. "Let’s take it as a speed bump and we’ll see where we go from here."
As Allmendinger returns to Kentucky, he does not have a full-time ride. But he is racing for various teams in multiple series. He’ll drive for JTG/Daugherty this weekend, helping that organization diagnose what’s holding it back. He also arrives at Kentucky as one of NASCAR’s latest winners.
Less than a month after leading the Indianapolis 500 and finishing seventh for Penske, Allmendinger took Penske’s Nationwide car to Victory Lane last weekend at Road America. It marked the first time Allmendinger had been to Victory Lane since winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January 2012.
While many will view what Allmendinger lost a year ago, he focuses on what he’s gained.
"It’s up for debate career-wise whether it will be better that I went through it or not, but I look at it that I’m so much better for it now," Allmendinger told Motor Racing Network. "Not that I wanted to do that, but it’s something that happened and I had to go through. Because of it, I’m a lot better for it and things are better for me.
"It’s just personally having things prioritized in life and having a different outlook on life. Nothing is perfect. Every day is a constant trying to figure things out but because of it, I’m a lot better for it."
It helped with Penske standing with Allmendinger, telling sponsors they could support the tarnished driver and owners that Allmendinger was worthy of their rides. James Finch put Allmendinger in his stock car at Charlotte in October after Penske encouraged him to do so. Allmendinger drove three other races for Finch late last season.
This season, Allmendinger split duties between NASCAR, primarily with Finch’s team, and Penske’s IndyCar team, highlighted by his Indianapolis 500 run. A week after Indy, he wrecked on the first lap both times in the twin Detroit IndyCar races.
While the frustration remains, he’s gained perspective.
"Yeah, the results are what you’re judged off ... (but) I’ve really tried to focus on, 'Did I do everything that weekend that I could to be at my best?' " he said. "If that’s a 19th-place finish, OK."
At Detroit, Allmendinger left with a pair of last-place finishes.
"I'm so sorry," Allmendinger told Penske that weekend. " 'I feel awful for this and I’ve cost you a lot of money.' A guy like that easily could be like, 'Yeah, you did.' Roger is like, 'Hey man, it’s fine.' I’m like, 'It’s not fine.' We’re not happy about it, but we’ll move on.
"Heck, I’ve been through enough that that’s not going to bury me."
And then came Road America three weeks later, where he scored his first NASCAR points win.
"Really, the biggest thing is to give Roger a victory," Allmendinger said. "This is the best way I can say 'Thank you' for everything you have done for me. I hope I get more chances to win more races with him. What I take away the most is feeling pretty special, and knowing that I can walk through the shop and see a picture of me in Victory Lane. I know it’s very small because he’s had so many wins. At least I’m a small part of it and a good part of it."
This weekend, the focus changes. Allmendinger is in the car Bobby Labonte normally drives, to help the team improve. He drove for the team two weeks ago at Michigan and will drive the No. 47 car at Watkins Glen in August, and two other races that have yet to be determined.
"I’m just trying to help them the best way I can, give them the feedback I can, whether it’s right or wrong or the same as Bobby or different than Bobby’s," Allmendinger said. "There are good things. I had a lot of fun at Michigan. I’m looking forward to it. It just gives me another opportunity to get into a Sprint Cup car and just be out there, just be competing."
And be back doing what some thought he would no longer be doing a year ago.