Last July, AJ Allmendinger was in a dark place. The Californian, having been given the first big break of his NASCAR career in the form of a top ride with Penske Racing, had failed a drug test for amphetamines. A few weeks later, after his “B” sample also tested positive, he was released from his contract.
The date was July 3rd, 2012. On June 22nd, 2013, driving a No. 22 car once again one man’s journey back to the top of the heap reached full circle, scoring his first career NASCAR victory in an improbable comeback that continues to reach new heights.
AJ Allmendinger was the class of the field at Saturday’s Johnsonville Sausage 200 at Road America, the first road course of the NASCAR Nationwide Series season. He didn’t just lead 29 laps, 19 more than his closest competitor in a race with 55 laps total. When he was out in front, he was unmatched, steering his Ford around the four-mile circuit with ease.
It was a bittersweet win not only because it was Allmendinger’s first victory in any NASCAR series. Road America marked a NASCAR return to Penske Racing for the driver, his first stock car race back with the team since getting let out of his contract almost a year ago. Allmendinger never completely severed ties with the organization; this season, he’s been running select IndyCar races, including the Indianapolis 500.
And now, he’s a stock car series winner. The Californian was so happy in Victory Lane, he directed an “I love you, Roger!” at the camera and promptly kissed it, happy to repay that loyalty with a Nationwide Series trophy to hang on the mantle.
Despite having the car to beat, it wasn’t easy. After getting punted out of the lead by Billy Johnson, Allmendinger pulled a daring crossover move on race leader Justin Allgaier to take back the point, then had to hold it through two attempts at green-white-checkered finishes. He held off Allgaier, who made a strong case for his first win of 2013 but ended up second. Parker Kligerman, Owen Kelly and Sam Hornish, Jr. finished third, fourth and fifth.
Brian Vickers, Kyle Larson, Cole Whitt, Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon rounded out the top 10.
The race saw eight caution flags fly for 16 laps — nearly a third of the entire race. Points leader Regan Smith was caught in one of the race’s many incidents, finishing 32nd and losing a significant chunk of his points lead, which is now down to 28 over Allgaier heading into Kentucky.
It’s hard not to feel good for AJ Allmendinger. At the beginning of 2012, the California native seemed to have everything after landing a spot in Penske Racing’s competitive No. 22 in the Sprint Cup Series. While he’s back in the same car, albeit a different series, a year later, it’s been a tough road back for Allmendinger. But now he can finally say he’s a NASCAR winner, a distinction carried by a select few. It’ll definitely go down as one of the more “feel good” wins of 2013.
Though he may have finished runner-up, Justin Allgaier is quietly becoming a pretty solid road racer; in his last two road events, he has finishes of first and second. It’s unclear whether Allgaier will ever make it to the Cup level, but if he gets a one-off chance, I’m willing to bet he’ll fill in at a road course; he’s really proving himself when turning right. Oh, and that bump back to second place in the standings is pretty nice, too.
Poor Michael McDowell. You have to think he circles the few races he gets with Joe Gibbs Racing on his calendar each year, which makes his Road America weekend all the more depressing. After qualifying fifth and running second in the race’s first few laps, a broken distributor kept McDowell’s No. 18 from moving much at all, save for a few random spurts of energy. The issue sent him behind the wall for repairs and relegated him to a 34th-place finish, three laps down, despite potentially having a good enough car to win. Bummer.
Regan Smith entered the race with a hefty 58-point lead in the standings after his Michigan win, but saw that lead cut in half after a wreck on the final lap at Road America killed what would have otherwise been a disappointing but tolerable day. Now, he has a lead of only 28 points over Justin Allgaier and 30 over Sam Hornish, Jr. Another race like Road America, and that lead is gone completely.
Road America was the race that would never end. Notice that? After a plethora of closing-lap cautions, it felt like the finish dragged on for an eternity. Having such long caution laps, of course, don’t help.
Oh, and there was the time Kenny Habul swerved to avoid rear-ending the cars in front of him and took out a sign, leaving part of it on the asphalt behind him and part on his car’s grill. Who knows, maybe it would have provided some ungodly amount of downforce that ricocheted him to the front. Probably not.
Underdog Performer of the Race: TriStar Motorsports may pretty much get these shoutouts more often than not, but Cole Whitt piloted the team’s No. 44 to its best finish of the season in eighth, which is admirable considering Hal Martin’s rough start to the season in the same car. Why doesn’t Whitt have a full-time ride again? Oh, right, because of sponsorship and because the NASCAR climate for drivers is horrible right now. But he deserves one.
The Definitely Something:
I don’t know whether to call this good, bad or ugly. However, Max Papis slapping the helmet of Billy Johnson post-race, showing his displeasure after some on-track incidents, and then apologizing for the kids on camera afterward had me laughing for a solid minute. It’s probably safe to say the two won’t be talking over Starbucks coffee anytime soon.
Start-and-parkers occupied one of the 40 starting positions in Saturday’s race, taking home $10,975 in purse money.
Cup full-timers occupied none of the 40 starting positions, and took home $0 in purse money.
The Final Word
AJ Allmendinger may never become a household name in NASCAR, nor may he ever reach the sport’s highest division as a full-time competitor. That said, it’s great to see him in Victory Lane, finally scoring that first win, almost a year after a failed drug test led many to wonder if we’d ever see him again in NASCAR at all.
The Road America race was captivating not because of its cluster of a finish, in terms of accidents, but because of the solid competition throughout. Watching the series regulars tangle with a couple ringers looking to make a name for themselves in NASCAR was absolutely thrilling, hopefully a sign of things to come at Mid-Ohio and at Watkins Glen later this year.
Allmendinger himself is already confirmed for the Mid-Ohio race. Get Papis and Johnson out there as well, hype it to the stratosphere, and baby, you’ve got a stew going.
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