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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Silly Season Swung Wide Open By One Bad NASCAR Drug Test

*Did You Notice?…* That in life, all it takes is one fleeting moment, one spoken word to turn our lives from successful to shattered?

In this case, it was as simple and tasteless as peeing into a cup. A.J. Allmendinger’s life changed forever Tuesday, suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for violating the sport’s drug policy in a decision that plunges his career into chaos. The driver’s “B” sample, tested weeks after the “A” showed no change in result, an unknown substance (rumored to be everything from methamphetamine to a rare stimulant found in an energy drink A.J. was endorsing) the root cause of what has kept him on the sidelines since hours before the July 7th Cup Series race at Daytona.

The ramifications here are far-reaching, especially in an era where sponsorship itself is bordering on an endangered species list. Allmendinger is now damaged goods, in an era where even A-quality stuff hits the unemployment line and that’s going to make it difficult for him to get a second chance. As it is, NASCAR’s Road To Recovery program under a “best case” scenario wouldn’t get him reinstated until just before the start of 2013 Daytona 500 testing. And when the ban gets lifted, who will take him then? Roger Penske, with a winless driver on his hands and an anxious sponsor in Shell/Pennzoil isn’t about to wait on Allmendinger to finish the program. Don’t get this situation confused with Helio Castroneves, who went to court on tax fraud but was supported by his car owner every step of the way. He has multiple Indy 500 trophies to his credit; Allmendinger doesn’t even have a victory from any of NASCAR’s top _three_ divisions since moving over from the open-wheel world in mid-2006. There’s no loyalty here, showcased in one teammate, Sam Hornish, Jr., openly campaigning for Allmendinger’s job while another, Brad Keselowski, sunk him in the press instead of offering support. At the moment, we’ve got a case of guilty until proven innocent and that’s a trial seemingly no one there wants to stick around for.

That leaves the ‘Dinger with three options, really. One is to enter the Road To Recovery program, do everything NASCAR asks and then hope for the best in 2013. An engaging personality, he might be an attractive option for a lower-tier team, like Front Row Motorsports looking to keep their program afloat. Or maybe, with start-and-park teams flourishing he can make a part-time comeback by driving slowly around the back for a few laps each week. The road ahead will be long, arduous and frustrating but a comeback, over several years would be slightly possible.

Option number two is to take the legal route, a costly endeavor Jeremy Mayfield will tell you doesn’t stand much of a test in paying off. Allmendinger would have to prove the samples were mishandled, NASCAR was incompetent and, like Mayfield have to show a waiver signed before entering the series should be overruled in this case. Even with a sterling track record, like A.J. has the chances of him doing better in court are quite slim, especially now that legal precedent has been set along the way.

So what’s option number three? If they kick you out, well, you can always take your ball and play in someone else’s court. The IndyCar Series is struggling for fresh faces and would love as many charismatic American drivers as possible to help compete against their foreign-flavored roster. Allmendinger, a native Californian has five career wins in the former Champ Car World Series to his credit; there’s no doubt he can transition back and be successful. Nothing in the racing rulebook says another series has to ban him for a drug test not conducted under their watch; a move back towards open-wheel, while a copout on the surface may be the only way possible he’ll get a true fresh start. If I had to guess, as this incident unfolds and Allmendinger eventually realizes the difficulty of staying on the stock car side of the fence this option’s going to gain steam and likely materialize within the next year.

It’s hard to believe that just six short months ago, we were talking about a California native who once had Indy 500 dreams being paired with the car owner he’d always dreamed of. But big rides also come with big expectations, goals that were never reached both on and off the track. Whether Allmendinger is truly guilty or not, he wakes up this Wednesday morning with a chilly lesson learned: careers, even some of the most successful are more fragile than you think.

*Did You Notice?…* What this move does for so many others? In an era where jobs in general are hard to come by, throwing a top-tier ride onto the market will attract a pack of ravenous wolves… er, drivers to Penske’s doorstep in minutes. Right now, the inside track on securing it is with Sam Hornish, Jr., scheduled to drive the car at Indianapolis and then Pocono next weekend. Those are big opportunities for him to cash in; the former Indy 500 winner has plenty of experience at the Brickyard while his best career Cup finish was fourth at Pocono in 2009. Hornish has said repeatedly he’d like a second crack at Sprint Cup; the audition is now his. An upset win for the ages would seal the deal; a handful of top-5 finishes would probably do it, too.

More than likely, though, Hornish will leave the door open just enough for others to sneak in. Joey Logano, likely on his way out at Joe Gibbs Racing will be given a serious look. Since Penske is switching to Ford, that makes it easier for Trevor Bayne to make a change from Roush and the Wood Brothers. David Ragan, struggling with Front Row Motorsports this season was a late-round candidate at the end of 2011 until the organization settled on Allmendinger. Longshot options include Parker Kligerman, who’s run Nationwide and Truck Series races for the organization and former driver Ryan Newman. Who gets it for good is anyone’s guess; but certainly, whoever does will be the first domino to fall in what remains during this year’s Silly Season.

*Did You Notice?…* Quick hits before we take off:

– NASCAR this week is rumored to be considering the provisional system used back in 2004, ditching the top 35 rule for 2013 in favor of one with less protection. Three words: it’s about time. But it’s also a case of too little, too late… with nearly ten start-and-park teams showing up to race each week, what does it matter?

– Speaking of start-and-parking, how embarrassing is it going to be when 15 percent of the field pulls out of the series’ second biggest race within 20 laps with “vibration” problems? To do so at such a historic venue, combined with the magnitude of the event shows you how serious the start-and-park problem really has become.