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Reinstated Allmendinger Faces Uphill Battle

As fast as the news came of AJ Allmendinger’s suspension for a failed drug test, it seems only fitting that the news that suspension is already lifted was equally as quick.

No, seriously. Not two months after the news broke in July, Allmendinger, the former driver of Penske Racing’s No. 22 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, is already “back,” or at least could be back, in theory. The news comes as a shock not in the sense that Allmendinger completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery Program; I don’t think anyone who knew the driver on even the most basic of levels would peg him as a bad guy whose problems were only going to worsen.

It’s more of a surprise that Allmendinger was out and back in so fast a time. In the past, drivers who are suspended but reinstated often seem to take a little longer before their suspensions are over — Aaron Fike, Jack Smith and Brian Rose, among others, come to mind. We don’t know much of anything about NASCAR’s substance abuse program, but I think many expected a tougher road to reinstatement for Allmendinger, as in not being back until 2013, if that.

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After being suspended from NASCAR for nearly two months for a failed drug test, AJ Allmendinger was reinstated this week… but will he find a ride?

Of course, the driver’s relatively quick reinstatement could be a product of a fairly harmless drug for which he tested to begin with. Allmendinger claims Adderall, with NASCAR merely calling it a “banned substance,” citing privacy laws in not giving more specifics on what triggered a positive test. However, a quick reinstatement certainly supports Allmendinger’s claim, as I doubt NASCAR would have an extensive rehab program for Adderall users. At the very least, it shows that either Allmendinger was driven to complete the program, or that the program itself wasn’t much at all because his initial suspension wasn’t, well, much at all. (It should be noted that there is precedent for Allmendinger’s speedy return. Randy Lajoie also completed the program in just two months following a suspension in 2010.)

But will it matter? Even though AJ Allmendinger is already cleared to race in NASCAR again, will he?

That’s where the story gets murky. Drivers have returned in the past from rehab programs, but rarely has it happened with a competitor who had a top-tier ride prior to his suspension.

One might have originally thought Penske Racing to be out of the equation once Allmendinger returned. So-so stats aside, he was completely fired from the team, rather than kept on while things sorted out. But wait, what’s that, Roger Penske? You’d still be willing to hire him back sometime down the line, or at least haven’t ruled it out? No, really.

“He could be an option for us, for sure,” Penske said last week. “He’s someone we would consider.”

Um… put Penske Racing back on the chalkboard, I guess?

Even then, AJ Allmendinger is a marked man. Whether he took illegal drugs or not, the fact is that some will perceive him as having done so because many who are suspended in the sport for a failed drug test probably have been — or, at the very least, there’s the negative connotation that comes with the word ‘drug.’ Would Shell really take him back? Well, less likely now, but even without Joey Logano in the picture, the chances of reconciliation seem bleak. And in an age of struggles to find sponsorship, having a sort-of scarlet letter on your chest doesn’t help matters at all.

If Allmendinger goes anywhere anytime soon, it may be on the open-wheel circuit. Penske hasn’t ruled out hiring him for that series, either, and AJ’s known to have had far more success in that realm, with five career wins on the now-defunct Champ Car tour.

But getting reinstated in September also means another thing: he’s got quite a bit of time before February to figure something out. Allmendinger would be wise to look forward to 2013 rather than to dwell in 2012, a year which should have held so much promise for him. Given NASCAR’s current situation with a lack of major rides in the sport (especially if one can’t secure sponsorship), the battle will certainly be tough for him to find another ride. But at least he has a better chance, rather than getting reinstated in December or even early next year, giving him just a few weeks to slap something together for 2013.

I find it tough to imagine Allmendinger coming back to NASCAR if it isn’t in equipment at least on par with his time with Red Bull Racing. If/when he does come back, I expect he’ll want to do it right. Therefore, we can probably rule out teams like Front Row Motorsports and below. If anything, we might see him in a situation akin to that of Brian Vickers in 2012 — a race here and there, but for a respectable organization. If he can’t find anything of the sort… well, there’s always IndyCar as a possibility, as well. But while AJ hasn’t ruled out a return to open wheel, he also “doesn’t want this to be the end of NASCAR” for him.

In reality, a team would do well to hire Allmendinger, be it Penske or someone else, because given how quickly he completed the rehab program and that he appears to be a first-time offender, fans will probably be willing to give him another chance.

Honestly, it’s likely that most of the NASCAR world will be, too. There just isn’t much disdain for this guy. He seems likable, and most importantly has very little about him that makes him easy to root against. That alone may give him an edge over previously suspended drivers when it comes to getting his career back on the right path.

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