The Racing Capital
of the World
Jul 26, 2015
June 26, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Just call AJ Allmendinger “The Comeback Kid.”
It was one year ago that Allmendinger was tested in accordance with NASCAR’s substance abuse policy at Kentucky Speedway. One week later, he was suspended when Adderall was found in his sample. That set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to Allmendinger losing the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil ride in the Sprint Cup Series and his release from Penske Racing.
Not only did it appear that Allmendinger would never win a NASCAR race, it was uncertain whether he would ever get another NASCAR ride.
But team owner Roger Penske stood by his driver even after he released him. Penske gave Allmendinger an opportunity to compete in five IZOD IndyCar Series contests in 2013, including the 97th Indianapolis 500 and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Allmendinger showed promise in all of his IndyCar races except for the double-header at Detroit, where he crashed on the first lap in both contests.
Although Allmendinger isn’t scheduled for any IndyCar contests in the near future, Penske put him in the No. 22 NASCAR Nationwide Series entry last week at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Allmendinger, from Los Gatos, Calif., started on the pole and went on to win the race – his first NASCAR victory of any kind.
"To be able to get my first win in NASCAR on Saturday is a relief in a way," Allmendinger said. “I have finally won something in NASCAR, and it's a relief, a joy with all emotions combined. I felt happy about the way I drove, and I felt confident and just good all around. It gave me confidence, and it was just fun to be at the track. Now, this week leads me to Kentucky Speedway with JTG Daugherty Racing. I'm excited to be at Kentucky because it is a fun, but challenging track that's bumpy and slick. One of the challenges of the track is that you really have to search around to get around it."
Allmendinger is back in the Sprint Cup Series this weekend at Kentucky Speedway and will drive a Toyota for JTG Daugherty Racing – the team co-owned by former National Basketball Association star and current ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty along with Tad Geschickter.
Allmendinger is splitting time in the No. 47 entry with former Cup champion Bobby Labonte. Allmendinger drove the car on Father’s Day at Michigan International Speedway, and Labonte was back in the ride last Sunday at Sonoma, Calif.
Allmendinger gets the ride this week at Kentucky, where he finished ninth in last year’s race.
"It will be good to be back with JTG Daugherty Racing," Allmendinger said. "The first weekend together at Michigan International Speedway was challenging in ways, but also good, too. We had our hardships during practice and didn't start the race straight, but we ended the race well (19th). I really enjoyed working with guys and with Tad (Geschickter, team co-owner). They are a good group of people.
“To be able to go out there again with JTG Daugherty Racing, we can keep working on some stuff. Bobby Labonte and the guys tested at Kentucky Speedway not long ago. We're just trying to build on what we learned at Michigan International Speedway. For me this weekend, trying to give the best feedback is important. I'll give the team as much info about what I think whether it's good or bad, and we will enjoy this weekend. Tad is a great owner, and I look forward to helping them.”
The decision to add Allmendinger to the single-car team was difficult. Although Labonte was able to compete for Phoenix Racing at Michigan, he does not have a ride at Kentucky, so his streak of 704 consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup starts will end.
"I will not be racing this week," Labonte said. "It is disappointing the way it is happening. I have had a couple offers this morning, but I have declined them because I don't want anybody else that has an opportunity to do what I do - what they love - to have to sit on the sidelines for my sake.
“First of all, I want to thank everyone for their support. It obviously means the world to me, as I have a passion for racing. We have great sponsors here at JTG Daugherty Racing, and we have a great race team. There are a lot of committed people that work here. Our sponsors are what keep us funded and racing. Our owners juggle all of the balls in the air at all times. We don't question how our sponsors run their business."
The decision to pull Labonte from the car was difficult for Daugherty, but as a former professional athlete, he has been in the same situation.
"This change is a gut-check situation for us," Daugherty said. "Being a former professional athlete, when I go to the track, I want to compete, I want to be competitive, I want to be in the hunt, and I want to be in the conversation in a positive way. I try to be realistic. I know the parameters that are set around our race team, but I also believe there are days when we can really outperform our expectations. I'm not seeing that enough out of our race team right now. It's a reality check for our racing organization. We need to see what we are made of and test ourselves against ourselves. We know the competition, what they bring, what they have and what we are up against. We need to see what's going on inside our four walls to see what will make us better or if this is as good as we can be. This is an opportunity to find out who we are and what we are made of.”
But giving Labonte the news was not easy, according to Daugherty.
"It was a very difficult conversation to have with Bobby about AJ driving five races for us," Daugherty said. "I would have been disappointed in Bobby if he wasn't disappointed about all this. I'm a huge Bobby Labonte fan on and off the track. He has tremendous character; he's a professional and a champion of our sport. Bobby is one of the true class acts throughout the sport and has been for the last 25 years. He wasn't excited about getting out of the race car because he's working hard to do the best that he can. He understands the fulfillment of data for us and what we need to do in order to grow.
“At the end of the day, he's been trying to help us for the past three seasons. As we look at it, we are starting to get progressively worse. With this new race car, we just don't have enough information to take a step in a different direction. Bobby was disappointed, but at the end of the day we have a lot of a respect for him as a race car driver, as a champion, but most of all as a person. We are looking at Bobby Labonte being a part of our organization long term no matter what we do. I want to see him be successful. Hopefully, this will help him gain some success, gain some information, gain some knowledge that he can apply when he's in the race car and make us better overall. We want to be there to race and be competitive. We've got 50 to 60 people in our organization that we owe this to because they work really hard to get us prepared to go to the track each week. We feel like it's time to take advantage of the opportunity. After we get through the tough times, the results will be positive. Again, it was a tough conversation to have with him, no doubt about it.”
While Labonte remains with the team and will be back in the race car Allmendinger represents a fresh approach as the team tries to overcome the odds of operating as a single-car team against the mighty multi-car operations that rule the sport.
“There are a couple things I really like about AJ Allmendinger," Daugherty said. "He is going to qualify your car if you give him a car that's capable. He will go out and push the button and qualify the car, no doubt about it. If the car is off, you are going to know it. Another thing I like is sticking him in at Watkins Glen International. I'm a huge road-racing fan, and AJ is a tremendous road-racer. I think it will give us an opportunity for a good finish having him behind the wheel. He's very hungry and passionate. I like where he's at.
“He's got a lot to prove. He's made some mistakes, and everybody is watching him. He's contrite. I spent some time with him the other day, and this young man realizes he messed up and his opportunities are hanging by a thread to continue his career. This gives us a chance to have a driver that's capable and fast to come in to give us his opinion. We will take the information and apply it.
“It's not unseating Bobby Labonte. We want to help Bobby, but we feel like we can't help him if he's in the car every week and we are beating on this thing and trying to figure it out and we are getting the same results no matter what we do. I feel like this can be applicable as far as helping us perform better. This a great opportunity for us."
Allmendinger must have mixed feelings about his return to Kentucky. After all, this was where he had one of his better races with Penske Racing but also the site of where a chain of events began that ultimately cost him his ride.
The measure of a person’s character is how they overcome adversity. In the year that has passed, adversity has certainly tested Allmendinger’s character and made him stronger than ever.
"What happened in the past, I'm a whole lot better for it," Allmendinger said. "It's a chapter in my life that is over, and I'm better for it in all areas of life. That chapter is closed. I've talked about it enough, and I really don't want to talk about it anymore. With winning my first NASCAR race, everything has come full circle, and the win opens a new chapter."
Allmendinger has been surrounded by support – from Roger Penske last year to JTG Daugherty Racing this season.
"He deserves a second chance," Geschickter said. "People deserve a second chance. He's done the right things. He's gone about it the right way. He wasn't anything, but absolutely in compliance with what he's been asked to do. He's trying to make it right. There are times in my life where I've made mistakes. All you can do is admit them, move forward and make them right."