A new opportunity for The Dinger?
Things are looking up for AJ Allmendinger, the former Champ Car World Series star who hitched his post to the NASCAR wagon six years ago. Californian Allmendinger, whose career in open wheel seemed to be in complete acceleration, decided to go to NASCAR with Red Bull – after being left out of that company’s Red Bull American F1 driver search (he would have been a superb candidate).
After being released from his Red Bull job in Sprint Cup, The Dinger found work with The King, Richard Petty and last year was signed to drive for The Captain, Roger Penske. After a failed drug test in Kentucky late last June, Allmendinger lost his eligibility, his job and any momentum he might have had in Cup, even with a second-place result at Martinsville earlier in the season.
That could have been lights out for this extremely talented driver, but thanks to Penske, it wasn’t. The 15-time Indianapolis 500-winning team owner invited Allmendinger to be his guest at the IZOD IndyCar Series’ season finale on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval at Fontana, CA. AJ spent the weekend in the pits, the paddock, seeing old friends, making new and generally enjoying himself – as much as any driver can when he’s not actually driving a race car.
Roger Penske at Auto Club Speedway last September (Anne Proffit photo)
Fast forward to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series banquet at Las Vegas. In his championship owner’s acceptance speech, Roger Penske offered a ride in the 2013 Indy 500 to three-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart. Everyone wanted Tony to do this – except Tony, thanks to his owner/driver/entrepreneur duties. It seemed case closed at the time.
Now we hear that Allmendinger will test with Penske Feb 18-19 on the short course at Sebring International Raceway, long an off-season venue for open wheel preparation. The news, broken by Lee Spencer of foxsports.com states that Penske is conducting this test as a prelude to Allmendinger’s possible open wheel return in a third Team Penske Dallara DW12/Chevrolet/Firestone entry. If proper funding can be allocated,
If the test is successful, and I have no doubt it will be, The Dinger could race at Barber Motorsports Park on April 7 and a week later on the streets of Long Beach, preparatory to an Indy 500 run – something he’s never had a chance to do because of his Champ Car affiliation back in the day.
Remembering those Champ Car days and Allmendinger’s surge once he joined Forsythe Racing alongside his former kart team owner Paul Tracy – and the three races he won in succession en route to finishing second to Sebastien Bourdais in the season standings, it shouldn’t take AJ terribly long to get his sea legs back. Work with Michael Shank Racing’s Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype team – including a victory in 2012 at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and another stirring drive to third this year shows Allmendinger hasn’t lost his edge.
Neither has Penske, whose yearning for another Baby BorgWarner trophy never seems to abate. That The Captain will take another chance on Allmendinger, recognizing his innate talent and his desire to overcome last year’s faux pas, well, that just shows the humanity and desire to succeed for both of them.
By Anne Proffit