AJ Allmendinger ready to make the most of second chance with new team

3 Comments

Having been picked to replace Kurt Busch in the No. 22 Dodge after Busch’s ouster from Penske Racing at the end of the 2011 season, AJ Allmendinger came into 2012 sitting on top of the world.

He was with one of the better teams in the sport, driving for a motorsports legend in Roger Penske, and had Allmendinger stuck around for the whole season, would have shared in then-teammate Brad Keselowski’s run to the Sprint Cup championship later that same year.

Unfortunately, the man they call “The Dinger” saw that world collapse just about six months into his term with Team Penske, being suspended by NASCAR after testing positive for a banned stimulant following a random drug test.

In a matter of days that followed, Allmendingers Sprint Cup career, if not his future racing career – not to mention his tenure with Team Penske – had come to an abrupt end almost as quickly as it began.

To his credit, Allmendinger owned up to what he did and became a virtual poster boy for NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program. Allmendinger did everything that was asked of him and was quickly reinstated less than 3 ½ months after being suspended.

“I learned that there’s a lot of things I needed to change,” Allmendinger reflected back about his layoff with MotorSportsTalk during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour. “That racing itself didn’t just make me happy. Being away from racing, that wasn’t making me happy. There were just a lot of things that I needed to work on personally and mentally, kind of like almost starting all over again.

“Honestly, if it didn’t happen, I probably would never have had those opportunities, just because you’re so busy and you try to carry on and say it’ll fix itself. We all know it’s not going to fix itself. We can’t hide from problems, they won’t just go away. It gave me a chance to step back, look at myself and say I need to start over, to figure out the areas I need to work on and find true happiness.

“Racing makes me happy, but it wasn’t the sole reason. I wasn’t happy at the time. Being at home and the things I was dealing with (including divorce proceedings) weren’t making me happy. It’s that whole package. I feel so much better where I’m at now as a person.”

Last season, Allmendinger hoped to return to a full-time ride, but the opportunities were not there, so he did what he needed to do to keep himself visible. After finishing third in the Rolex 24 last January, he came back to race for Penske (proving he didn’t burn any bridges) in the Indianapolis 500 (started fifth, finished seventh).

Allmendinger would race in a total of six IndyCar races in 2013, as well as 18 Sprint Cup races for Phoenix Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing, and also won both Nationwide Series races he entered (both also for Penske).

Allmendinger now finds himself in a similar position as Kurt Busch was in last season. Busch took an opportunity from Furniture Row Racing and ultimately became the first driver in Sprint Cup history to qualify a one-car team in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

That’s what Allmendinger would like to replicate in 2014.

“It is almost like starting over to be with this race team,” he said. “They don’t make me feel just like a driver, they make me feel a part of their family, I’m a key component to the race team and building it, not just driving the car. For all those reasons, I’m really looking forward to the partnership.”

The feeling is mutual, says team co-owner and ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty.

“We think it’s going to be a huge step for our program going forward,” Daugherty said of having Allmendinger. “We’re hoping to kind of simulate what the 78 (Busch and the Furniture Row team) did last year, to be very competitive every week.

“Expectations within our company are very high. We want to be inside that top-20 every week. … If you run well as a single-car team and get inside the top-20, you’re doing something.”

Putting Allmendinger behind the wheel is one of several changes for JTG-Daugherty, which is entering its 20th season in NASCAR racing this year. The perennial also-ran organization intends on shaking things up this year in a big way.

“We’re going to show up, be loud and proud, walk into some of those places like Dover and kick their butts, that’s what we’re planning on doing,” Daugherty said. “There’s no need to be shallow or meek about it. We got our butts kicked the last couple of years, so we’re going to hopefully return the favor this year.”

One of the biggest changes is JTG-D’s switch from Toyota to Chevrolet motors and chassis leased from Richard Childress Racing.

“We knew we had to have the alliance if we truly were going to be competitive,” Daugherty said. “Within our four walls, we don’t feel like we’re a 30th-place race team; we feel like we’re a 20th-place race team, but the reality of it is we were a 30th-place race team last year.

“We felt that Richard Childress gave us the best opportunity to maximize everything they were going to allow us to utilize. From Day One, they’ve given us entrée to everything they do in their building and it’s up to us to take advantage of it.”

Allmendinger plans on sticking around JTG-D, having recently signed a three-year contract.

“I thought this was the right place to be, the right choice for me and a place I can be hopefully for a long time,” Allmendinger said. “I’m very fortunate. … After 2012, I had to really sit down and look at that maybe, what you call big-time auto racing, I might be done with it. I love being here. I hope it continues for a long time.”

Allmendinger also realizes that everything he’s gone through has made him stronger.

“I truly believe now that things are meant to happen for a reason,” he said. “God had a plan and there’s so many things that happened last year that I’m so fortunate about. I’m in a great place, I feel so good mentally, physically – I’m just ready to go.”

Yet no matter how positive his attitude is, Allmendinger realizes and has accepted that he will likely carry for the rest of his career, if not his life, the stigma of having been suspended for drug use.

“I know that because of that stuff and where I’m at now and how much better I am,” Allmendinger said. “It sounds dumb, not that I’d ever want to have to go through that, but I’m happy I did and I wouldn’t actually go back and change it. That’s really the true thing. No, (talking about) it doesn’t bother me anymore.

“I’m happy to know I’ve learned from the past. But I don’t go back to the past, I just look toward the future. It’s a part of me and probably always will be.”

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Danica Patrick to sign off driving career at 2018 Indy 500

Getty Images
Leave a comment

With her full-time career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series now coming to an end, following the end of the 2017 season this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Danica Patrick is embarking on a new path in 2018 with the two biggest 500-mile races in North America.

Patrick confirmed plans to participate in North America’s most marquee 500-mile races, the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, during a press conference today in Miami. A team for the Indianapolis 500 has not been determined, and her options for the Daytona 500 are limited to NASCAR teams with three or fewer full-time cars, because a four-car full-time team cannot enter a fifth for the Daytona 500.

Patrick ended her full-time career in IndyCar after 2011 to head to NASCAR. She drove 10 races in 2012 before her first full Cup season in 2013, where she won the pole for that year’s Daytona 500 and ultimately finished eighth.

Her Cup career has seen her finish between 24th and 28th in points with seven career top-10 finishes, all between sixth and 10th place. She ranks 27th heading into this week’s finale too.

It was her IndyCar career though where she first entered the national conversation after a few years of apprenticeship driving for Bobby Rahal’s Barber Dodge and Formula Atlantic teams. A fourth place finish in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 with a number of laps led launched her into the racing stratosphere and helped produce the Indianapolis 500’s biggest rating in years.

Ultimately her best finish in the ‘500 in seven starts was third place in 2009, behind Helio Castroneves and the late Dan Wheldon.

She won at Motegi, 2008, for her first and only win in IndyCar.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, makes a pit stop during the IZOD IndyCar Series Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

A visibly emotional Patrick announced this was the end of her full-time driving career to kick off the press conference, but switched to her future plans once she got through the opening remarks.

Patrick “never thought” she’d do the Indianapolis 500 again but when tossing around future ideas, the concept of running both Daytona and Indianapolis came up.

“I never thought I would do it. I always thought never, but I never said never. Here I am,” she said.

“Out of my mouth came, ‘What about Indy?’ That was really the first sort of idea that got me excited. Let’s do it. I called Haley (Moore, longtime PR rep). What did I just say I would do? She said, ‘Hell yes that’s a good idea.’

“I’m still surprised.”

Patrick will need to participate in the Indianapolis 500 refresher program for drivers that aren’t full-time drivers, so that will provide her a couple hours additional track time before practice opens to the full field in mid-May.

The new 2018 Dallara universal body kit comes into being this year too, and Patrick thinks she has improved as a driver over the last six seasons to be able to come back.

“(Going) 240… it’ll be no problem,” she deadpanned. “It’ll take a bit of adjusting. It’s different for sure. But I think I’m a better driver now. It’ll take a bit of acclimating. Yeah, I would like to get in a car before I get to Indy.”

Patrick said running the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 “could” occur with her same teams she last ran with full-time, Stewart-Haas Racing and Andretti Autosport, respectively. But her options remain open for both.