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.”
Allmendinger will make his IndyCar Series debut this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., 6 years after he last raced in an open-wheel series. He’s driving for Penske Racing as a tune-up to the Indianapolis 500 after being fired by the organization last summer.
Hired by Penske 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.
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.
Why? Because Allmendinger had earned a spot in the Penske organization in just 6 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.’
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.
“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.”
Allmendinger left Champ Car after a successful five-win season in 2006 when an opportunity opened in NASCAR. 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 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.
Allmendinger is not entirely sure he is ready. Unlike NASCAR’s top Sprint Cup Series, which practices several hours every race weekend, the IndyCar Series has very little actual track time at Barber.
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.