Penske hires AJ Allmendinger for two IndyCar races
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- AJ Allmendinger looked and sounded like a driver getting the second chance of a lifetime Friday.
Eight months after failing a NASCAR drug test and losing his job on Roger Penske's Cup team, the 31-year-old California native was rehired by The Captain to drive in two IndyCar races this season - including the season's biggest race, the Indianapolis 500.
Allmendinger got the series title sponsor, IZOD, as his primary sponsor and will drive the No. 2 car that won the pole last year for an owner who has won a record 15 Indy 500 titles.
It doesn't get better than that.
"When you're racing against people at over 200 mph, they're the ones that have to trust you and if they don't trust you, you're not going to be back in the sport anyway," Allmendinger said after listing a series of drivers who had offered support to him in his comeback bid. "So they told me do what you have to do and get back, get back as soon as possible."
The current deal is only for two races: April 7 at Birmingham, Ala., and May 26 at Indy. If Penske finds more funding, the schedule could be expanded.
He also will try to juggle his new part-time job with a part-time Cup schedule that already includes races at Bristol and Fontana with Phoenix Racing. That team also wants more funding to keep Allmendinger on the track regularly.
There was speculation that Penske's third car would go to Ryan Briscoe, last year's pole-winner, or three-time Cup champion and IndyCar veteran Tony Stewart.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric said the team never made an offer to Briscoe, who was looking for a full-time ride. As for Stewart, Cindric said that offer was made and was on the table until the driver-owner decided he needed to focus his attention solely on NASCAR.
So Penske's team turned to the American it used at 17 Cup races last season and had him test the car in February at Sebring. The official offer still surprised Allmendinger, who sat inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's trackside media tower smiling almost in disbelief.
"To have Roger Penske and everybody at the Penske organization ask me to come back is just amazing," Allmendinger said. "Roger told me last year that once you're in the family, you're always in the family and to have Roger say those words and not just say them but to act on them, to have him call me every week and check on me and make sure I was all right, and then to come back to Indy, really is amazing."
NASCAR suspended Allmendinger in July after he failed a random drug test. He was released by Penske when a backup "B" sample also tested positive for a banned substance that Allmendinger later confirmed was Adderall. The prescription drug is commonly used to treat attention deficit disorder, which Allmendinger does not have. He also did not know what was in the pill.
"I was dumb and naive and it was a one-time thing," he said. "I took it unknowingly, but it was dumb."
The suspension gave Allmendinger time to contemplate his future in racing and complete NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program. He was reinstated by Cup officials in September and finished the season by competing in four Cup races with Phoenix Racing.
IZOD representative Mike Kelly noted that "AJ is an interesting cat" and Allmendinger interrupted: "I don't know how to take that."
IndyCar officials said Allmendinger will be subjected to random tests. But neither the team nor the series has created any additional requirements to ensure Allmendinger is clean. Cindric said Penske does not consider this hire to be a risky venture.
"There was really no choice but to have things play out the way they did," Cindric said. "There was a timeout there for a while, but he's assured everyone he's OK and we believe that."
Allmendinger acknowledged that last season was tough for him in many ways. After getting his dream ride with Penske, things didn't go as well as he had hoped, putting even more pressure on himself.
"Mentally, I just was not happy with myself and what's really tough in NASCAR is that you don't have time to fix it because you're racing every week," Allmendinger said. "I kept putting those emotions off, and I thought if I was racing great, those emotions would be great. I figured out at some point that wasn't the case."
This year, it's been a different story. Though he didn't race in February's Daytona 500, Allmendinger made his season debut last weekend at Phoenix and finished 11th. He spoke Friday with passion and showed the excitement of a rookie driver who couldn't wait to get started.
The new job gives him a chance to return to his open-wheel roots where he was once considered the hottest young star. From 2004 to 2006, he had 14 podium finishes in the now-defunct Champ Car Series, winning five times and finishing third in points in 2006. Back then, when America's top open-wheel drivers were competing in separate series, Allmendinger wanted to compete at Indy.
He only got that chance by moving to NASCAR where he competed in the Brickyard 400.
But all along, the driver named after four-time Indy winner A.J. Fort wanted to race in the 500. And he'll get to do that with the most dominant team in track history.
"As a kid growing up when I was 10, 12 years old, I loved the Indy 500. The split took away from the prestige of the Indy 500 because the best of the best weren't here, so I kind of forgot what some of the prestige here was like until I came back in a stock car," Allmendinger said. "Then immediately, I thought I wonder what it would be like to run an Indy car here. ... It's still the biggest race, I think, on this planet."