In this March 15, 2012, file photo, NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger looks on during practice for the Food City 500 auto race in Bristol, Tenn. Allmendinger doesn't know why Roger Penske gave him a second chance. All he knows is that he heads to Barber Motor
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — AJ Allmendinger doesn’t know why Roger Penske gave him a second chance.
He doesn’t ask, either.
“He’s a great man, a great man in nature,” Allmendinger said. “But do I feel like I deserve a second chance? No. Not from him. I brought bad light to his name. Do I feel like I’ve worked hard to get a second chance? Yes. I’ve worked hard every day, put my head down and worked my butt off and I’m lucky enough to have someone like Roger Penske take another shot with me.”
Allmendinger’s next chance comes this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., where he’ll make his IndyCar Series debut more than six years after he last raced in an open-wheel series. He’s driving for Penske Racing as a tune-up to the Indianapolis 500 in the second chance he never thought he’d get when he was fired by the organization last summer.
Hired by Penske that year to drive for his NASCAR team, Allmendinger failed a random drug test hours before the July race at Daytona. He was immediately suspended by NASCAR and ultimately fired by Penske when his backup “B” sample also tested positive for what Allmendinger has identified as Adderall.
It could have been a career-ender for Allmendinger. But he successfully completed NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery” program and was reinstated in September. Penske stayed in touch with him the entire time and brought him out to the IndyCar season finale at Fontana last September as his guest.
Because Allmendinger had earned a spot in the Penske organization in just six months.
“As we built our team over the years, drivers become part of the family,” Penske said. “All of us have had issues as we’ve grown up, and I think this is a situation that was unfortunate. The rules are the rules, and I think we stepped back and said, ‘OK, he had to go through NASCAR probation.’
“But I felt like this opportunity for him, where we got a sponsor for him for Indy, was an opportunity to get him back up at a level where he needed to be to carry on his career,” he said. “It was an easy decision. We are trying to rally around him.”
Penske hasn’t always been so forgiving with his drivers. After all, Paul Tracy was shown the door when he tested the team owner’s patience.
When asked the difference between Tracy, who coincidentally has been a mentor at times to Allmendinger, and Penske’s reclamation project, Penske snickered.
“I think Paul — some of that was his own doing,” Penske said. “There’s a few guys who don’t graduate. I just want you to realize one thing: We don’t have an environment where nobody can’t fail. Just remember that. Put that clear. We don’t have an environment where no one fails.”
So Allmendinger gets his second chance, and he desperately doesn’t want to fail.
He left Champ Car after a successful five-win season in 2006 when an opportunity opened in NASCAR and, until now, he never looked back. All the money was in NASCAR and the future of open-wheel racing in America was shaky at best.
But Allmendinger has a respect for the talent level in IndyCar, for the drivers he competed against long ago. His participation in Sunday’s race will draw some NASCAR fans to the viewing audience, and Allmendinger expects them to be impressed.
“I guess NASCAR fans don’t know a lot of the names in the field, but that’s because of marketing. Trust me, there are no scrubs in this series, these guys are so quick,” Allmendinger said. “So now I’m here trying to manage expectations. But right now, I would love just to get through the first round of qualifying.
“I know people are going to be watching me, and I think it’s going to be cool to bring some of those NASCAR fans over to notice the series and get them to say, ‘Hey, that’s some great racing.’ I want IndyCar to be strong and it has a place in this country. It just needs to be noticed.”
Now Allmendinger gets to be the guy to bring it attention, and he’s not sure he is entirely ready. Unlike NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, which practices several hours every race weekend, the IndyCar Series has very little actual track time at Barber. He’s rusty in open-wheel cars, new to IndyCar and still trying to get a feel for the change.
“I’m definitely nervous about it. I’d be lying if I said I’m where I need to be right now,” he said. “Looking at it perfectly honestly, I don’t know if there’s enough time to get to where we need to be comfortable. I’m looking for that feeling where it used to be so natural, but it has been seven years.”
Allmendinger has gotten a considerable amount of help from Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves, drivers who were nothing more than acquaintances before Penske signed him on for this IndyCar project. He raced against Power in Champ Car, and has known Castroneves for years.
But the relationship didn’t become closer when he was hired to join the NASCAR side of Penske’s organization. It wasn’t until the last few months that he’s become closer with the two, especially Power.
Penske laughs at the relationship between Power, his quirky Australian, and Allmendinger, the high-energy Californian.
“Will is a first-class guy, real team player,” Penske said. “They have high respect for each other. AJ always used to tell me how he could come up here and he could whip Will. I said, ‘OK, now you’ve got your chance.’ He told me the other day on the phone, he said, ‘This guy is something. Helio, too.’ They want to see him be successful. The whole company is behind him.”
Allmendinger said his relationship with Power and Castroneves is the closest he’s been to teammates since he was teamed with Justin Wilson at RuSport in Champ Car. He believes they’ve been kind to him because “I’m no threat to them. I am not going in there to steal one of their jobs.”
Power indicated Allmendinger’s infectious personality has made it impossible not to welcome him into the group.
“He’s so likable, I was really happy to have him in the team,” Power said. “And he’s kind of on the back foot, he hasn’t been in the cars in so long. Once he starts getting close, he won’t even need help.”
It’s not clear how long this run will last for Allmendinger. He’s got nothing on his schedule with Penske beyond Barber and the Indy 500, although there’s been discussion of trying to get him into the April 21 race at Long Beach.
In NASCAR, he takes whatever he can get from Phoenix Racing as James Finch’s underfunded team has so far been the only organization to take a chance on him. In three starts for Finch, he’s averaged a 13.3 average finish after qualifying no higher than 23rd in any of the races.
“I know in my heart this is my last opportunity and I am going to do everything I can do be at my best in the car and the best person I can be out of the car,” Allmendinger said. “If it works, and I make something out of this chance, great. If it doesn’t work, maybe I am just not good enough.
“But I have learned throughout all of this, and I don’t care what people say anymore. What matters is what I think of myself, what my family thinks of me, what the people who care about me think. I made a mistake and I learned so much from it — especially that a mistake is not a bad thing if you learn from it. And I’ve become a better person through all of this.”