Allmendinger: 'I'm As Happy As I've Ever Been'

AJ Allmendinger

AJ Allmendinger scored JTG Daugherty's only top-10 finish last season running in select events for the team. (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It took more than 18 months for this day to arrive, although there were times AJ Allmendinger wondered if it would.

When Allmendinger climbed into his JTG Daugherty Chevrolet Saturday morning at Daytona International Speedway, it marked big step toward rebuilding his career - the first time he’s had a full-time Sprint Cup ride since July 2012.

“It’s been a crazy ride to a certain extreme,’’ Allmendinger said. “To be where I’m at – not just full-time but mentally and physically… I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.’’

Allmendinger’s future appeared in doubt two years ago after NASCAR suspended him for failing a drug test. Allmendinger blamed poor judgment in accepting what he thought was an energy supplement from a friend of a friend. Instead, the pill was Aderall, an amphetamine commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Allmendinger lost his ride with Team Penske, paving the way for Joey Logano to eventually join Brad Keselowski. Even so, car owner Roger Penske didn’t abandon Allmendinger.

He told Allmendinger “there are people a lot bigger than you are that have issues and have bounced back.’’ Penske gave Allmendinger the chance to do so by providing him rides in select Nationwide Series and IndyCar races.

Allmendinger responded by winning two road course Nationwide races and finished seventh in the Indianapolis 500. He also ran in 18 of the 36 Cup races last year, driving for Phoenix Racing and JTG Daugherty.

His performance in a limited number of races with JTG Daughtery led to the full-time ride with the team this year, replacing Bobby Labonte.

Allmendinger said his suspension helped him refocus his priorities and led him on a path that has him feeling so good.

“You get into a bad place sometimes,’’ Allmendinger said about where he was before the suspension. “It’s not just one little thing. In a way, this is like starting over. But I feel like I’ve found a home. It’s a small team but I really enjoy that.’’

For as good as he’s felt entering this season, he knows there will be challenges. JTG Daugherty struggled to be competitive last season, scoring one top-10 finish. The team switched from Toyota to Chevrolet in the offseason, but has joined Richard Childress Racing in a technical alliance.

Allmendinger says he’s ready for any challenges this season presents.

“It’s about setting our realistic expectations,’’ he said. “My expectation is to go out and win every race. That isn’t going to happen. But realistically, we can go out there and contend. We need to make our bad days 22nds or 24ths.’’

That could be realistic. Allmendinger averaged a 20th-place finish in nine starts for the team last year. He scored the team’s best finish of the season with a 10th at Watkins Glen.

“Last year was a good stepping stone to see where we were at the time and where we need to go,’’ Allmendinger said. “(This year) my theme is one day at a time. We can’t go out and think we are going to set the world on fire. But we have the confidence in ourselves that if we get everything right, we can compete with the best of the best. I truly believe that.”

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