Driver grateful for opportunity
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.”