Brett Poirier · Tuesday May 28, 2013
Hundreds of thousands of screaming fans in the stands, millions more glued to their TVs at home, watching arguably the most prestigious race in the world on Sunday—and A.J. Allmendinger was leading.
The same guy who failed a drug test, lost his ride with one of NASCAR’s top teams, and was expected to vanish from the racing world faster than the wing on the Car of Tomorrow was in position to win in his first attempt at the Indianapolis 500.
Who Allmendinger did it with may be even more surprising. The same owner, Roger Penske, who fired him from his NASCAR ride last August after the failed drug test heard around the world, gave Allmendinger a second chance in IndyCar. Penske was the one on the pit box calling the shots as Allmendinger raced to the lead multiple times on Sunday.
Stories don’t get much more unlikely than that. Nine months ago, if I told you Penske had rehired Kurt Busch to race in Sprint Cup, that would have been more plausible than what transpired at Indy. However, if there is one thing that Penske has shown us, it’s that he is loyal. He stuck with Indy 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr. during his struggles in Sprint Cup and during the time he couldn’t attract a sponsor in Nationwide. When the sponsorship came together, Penske started a second team in Nationwide so Hornish could prove that he belonged in NASCAR — and he has.
Hornish currently sits second in the Nationwide standings this season. The same way Penske didn’t give up on Hornish, he hasn’t with Allmendinger. He knew that Allmendinger was a proven commodity in open wheel and someone on the cusp of breaking through in NASCAR. So, instead of watching Allmendinger complete the Road to Recovery program and be left with only a dead end road to go down, Penske reached out with an offer.
It might have only been a handful of races in IndyCar, but it very well could’ve changed the complexion of Allmendinger’s career. He was labeled as a drug user last year, and that’s a difficult label to overcome for any athlete—no matter the drug. It’s even more difficult as a racecar driver, though. If Allmendinger was an NFL player, we would’ve forgotten about it in a year, especially if he kept producing on the field. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said that about half the league uses Adderall. That’s probably a high estimate, but it’s more commonplace in the NFL than in NASCAR where the only names we associate with drug use: Shane Hmiel, Aaron Fike and Jeremy Mayfield are long gone from the sport.
Allmendinger very well could’ve been the next. After all, for all the potential he has shown in NASCAR, he has no wins and five top-five finishes in 177 career Sprint Cup starts to show for it. On those numbers, a failed half-season in great equipment and the label as a drug user, how long was he going to stay at the top form of motorsports, whether it be Indy or NASCAR?
But when Michael Shank sticks by Allmendinger in sports cars — they won the Rolex 24 together in 2012 and ran again in 2013 — and Penske cares enough about Allmendinger to rehire him less than a year after firing him, it speaks volumes in the racing world.
James Finch was the other owner to give Allmendinger a seat this season, and played just as important of a role. When Busch had his fallout with Penske, Finch was the first on the scene to say he didn’t care about the baggage because he wanted the talent in his car. At the end of last season, he offered that same opportunity to Allmendinger, allowing him to stay in the NASCAR garage. (Is Joey Logano next?)
In four Sprint Cup starts with under-funded Phoenix Racing this season, Allmendinger has placed 11th, 13th, 16th and 14th, which is pretty impressive.
Phoenix Racing is expected to close shop soon, and Allmendinger’s IndyCar schedule this year was geared toward preparing him for his first Indy 500. It’s fair to say his future is uncertain. But it looks a hell of a lot brighter than it did at the end 2012.
Allmendinger has done just about everything right this season. He’s out-performed his equipment in Sprint Cup, and proved that while he is a little rusty, he can still compete at the top in open wheel. He’s conducted himself with class as well. ESPN reporter Jamie Little brought up Allmendinger’s struggles in the last year in an interview that aired before the Indy 500, and he smiled and admitted that he had made mistakes in the past, but talked about how grateful he was for his present opportunity.
We can only sit and wonder what might’ve been if his seat belt hadn’t come loose while racing in the lead with 70 laps to go on Sunday. Tony Kanaan’s story was special, but what if Allmendinger had won the Indy 500?
Allmendinger still led a bunch of laps and rallied to finish seventh, which was a small victory considering it was his first race. And that’s what this whole season has been for him, a series of small victories for a driver we all thought was finished.
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