The Frontstretch: 2012 NASCAR Driver Review: AJ Allmendinger by Brad Morgan -- Wednesday December 19, 2012

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2012 NASCAR Driver Review: AJ Allmendinger

Brad Morgan · Wednesday December 19, 2012

 

2012 Rides: No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge (17 races), No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet (4 races)
2012 Primary Sponsors: Shell / Pennzoil, AAA, Southern California AAA, Phoenix Racing
2012 Owners: Roger Penske, James Finch (Phoenix)
2012 Crew Chiefs: Todd Gordon (Penske), Nick Harrison (Phoenix)

AJ Allmendinger, late 2012 with Phoenix Racing

Stats: 21 races, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 3 top 10s, 3 DNFs, 1 pole, 32nd in points.

Best Finish: 2nd (Martinsville – April).
Average Finish: 22.6.
Average Start: 16.3.

2012 Team Ranking: 2nd of 2 (Penske). Even if he lasted the season, Allmendinger was consistently a step, if not several behind eventual Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

High Point: Martinsville – April. Following a slow start to his young Penske Racing career, bad luck defining some mediocre performances Allmendinger found himself at Martinsville Speedway for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500.

After staying consistently within the top 15 for much of the day, the 30-year-old driver found himself running eighth with 10 laps to go. Allmendinger seemed ready to chalk up a season first top 10 before David Reutimann stopped on-track with two flat tires, creating a green-white checkered scenario. Once the green flag waved, leaders Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were immediately launched up and out of the racing groove when Ryan Newman sent Clint Bowyer careening into the Hendrick Motorsports teammates entering Turn 1.

When the caution was finally lifted, Allendinger found himself side-by-side with Newman contending for his first series win, but ultimately settled for second place in what would inevitably be a season-best finish.

Low Point: Kansas – October. Welcome back, A.J. In his second race with Phoenix Racing, following a drug-related suspension and subsequent release from Penske the ‘Dinger looked to rebound when the Sprint Cup Series visited the newly repaved Kansas Speedway. Having won the pole in the Spring, driving the No. 22 he was hoping that success could transfer into a racing run that turned heads — and prospective sponsors.

Things appeared to be going well for the driver in the No. 51, after a good qualifying run left him 13th on the starting grid. When the race began, Allmendinger kept his Chevy out of trouble and in the top 15 for much of the early going, only to end up the victim of a blown right-front tire on lap 69. A hard impact into the Turn 3 SAFER barrier promptly ended his day.

Whether the new track surface, along with the recently installed progressive banking in the tri-oval and Turns 1 and 2 were to blame is unknown. However, the bottom line was Allmendinger became one of several casualties during a wreck-filled Hollywood Casino 400. The 35th-place finish that resulted from the accident didn’t help as the driver sought to rebuild his resume.

Summary: Allmendinger’s NASCAR career was trending steadily upwards entering 2012. After departing from Richard Petty Motorsports in the offseason, the former open-wheel driver was found partnered with the highest profile team that he has been associated with since entering Sprint Cup competition.

His debut season with Penske Racing didn’t get off to a flying start, however, even as teammate Brad Keselowski racked up early wins at Bristol and Talladega. By midseason, when the “Blue Deuce” was slowly rounding into form and beginning to compete for a Chase berth, Allmendinger still hadn’t managed to hit his stride. Part of that was bad luck, a series of wrecks and mechanical failures turning what should have been a dream scenario for this former open-wheeler into an ugly nightmare. Losing confidence, friction was evident between driver and crew on the radio, personal issues off-track also turning the usually upbeat Allmendinger into a bit of a mess. An early series of contending race cars eroded, a weekend’s worth of work producing setups lucky enough to crack the top 15.

For a brief moment, with top-10 results in back-to-back weeks at Sonoma and Kentucky, it appeared that AJ and the team were finally getting his season together last June. Instead, disaster struck shortly thereafter when the driver was suspended indefinitely after violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. From a competitive standpoint, the suspension ended the six-year veteran’s season.

Upon reinstatement and completion of the “Road to Recovery” program, Allmendinger was signed by James Finch to compete in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet for four races. But, following the three-month hiatus, he was unable to place no better than 24th in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte.

Off-Track News: This section should be marked “READ FIRST” simply because off-track issues had a greater impact on Allmendinger’s season than anything that happened behind the wheel of a stock car.

The stars seemed to align as ‘Dinger found himself with Penske, but he was abruptly brought crashing back to earth after being caught in a web of drug abuse allegations. Allmendinger was abruptly withheld from the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona just moments before the race was set to begin because of a failed drug test. Complications ensued for the repeat drug offender as he hired experts to try and prove his innocence. He was later suspended indefinitely after his backup “B” sample revealed that amphetamines were present. No one will ever know the real story behind the incident, but the driver claimed he “took an Adderall pill from a friend” that resulted in the positive test. The driver, who had been suffering under the weight of a poor early-season performance also officially divorced former wife Lynne Kushnirenko, a lengthy process begun in mid-2011.

Allmendinger, after telling his tale then raced his way back onto the scene after completing NASCAR’s required recovery program in record time — just one month — but was released from his duties at Penske Racing as a consequence.

2013 Outlook: Allmendinger’s future in NASCAR remains uncertain following his suspension and return at the end of the ’12 campaign. He has been linked to rumors with his most recent employer James Finch, and with BK Racing’s fledgling operation. Reports have also surfaced that Allmendinger could scrap his NASCAR career altogether to compete in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

2010 Frontstretch.com Grade: B.
2011 Grade: B.
2012 Grade: Incomplete.

Contact Brad Morgan

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