When JTG Daugherty Racing announced earlier this week that AJ Allmendinger will not be returning for a sixth full-time NASCAR Cup season with the team in 2019, many ‘Dinger fans wondered where the Los Gatos, California native would race next season.
Pretty much every NASCAR Cup ride is already filled for 2019.
Yet at 36 (he turns 37 on Dec. 16), Allmendinger is far too young to retire from racing. But if he can’t find a new ride in NASCAR, then what?
What if Allmendinger were to return to IndyCar racing or IMSA sports car racing?
It was in open-wheel racing that Allmendinger made his initial mark in four-wheel competition. In the CART/Champ Car World Series, Allmendinger made 40 starts, earning 14 podium finishes, including five wins in his final season (2006), when he finished third in the championship.
All five of those wins came on either permanent road courses (Portland, Road America) or temporary street courses (Cleveland, Toronto and Denver).
Then in 2013, he made a partial comeback to the IndyCar ranks for Roger Penske, competing in six races, including earning a seventh-place finish in the Indianapolis 500.
Sure, Indy cars are completely different today from what Allmendinger drove between 2004 and 2006 in CART/Champ Car, as well as in 2013 in IndyCar.
But with the proper amount of preparation and testing, Allmendinger coming back to IndyCar is not as far-fetched as it may seem.
After his five Champ Car wins in 2006, many Allmendinger fans likely wondered what might have been if he had remained in the open-wheel ranks. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could have eventually gone on to become an Indy car champion.
When Champ Car and the Indy Racing League merged to form IndyCar in 2008, Allmendinger would have been a great fit. However, he had already cast his lot with NASCAR, running a part-time Cup schedule in 2007 and 2008 before going full-time in 2009.
Since then, Allmendinger has just one win, 11 top-five and 55 top-10 finishes in 363 starts in the Cup series.
He also has two wins and three top-fives in 11 Xfinity Series starts, and two top-fives in 13 Camping World Truck Series efforts.
In addition to what he achieved in CART/Champ Car and IndyCar, Allmendinger has been an excellent sports car driver.
In nine starts in the former Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series, he had one win (2012 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona) and three podiums. Then, in four subsequent starts in IMSA’s Weathertech SportsCar Championship series, he has one podium in four starts.
Allmendinger said in an interview Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that he has no intention of stopping racing.
“I’m not leaving,” he said. “You make it sound like I’m dying up here. I just don’t have a job right now.”
While Allmendinger could still potentially hook up with another Cup team, or an Xfinity or Truck Series team next season, it’s clear that one of his closest friends, sports car and IndyCar team owner Michael Shank, wants to see AJ racing.
For Michael Shank Racing, that is.
When news broke that Allmendinger would not be returning to JTG Daugherty next season, Shank took to Twitter.
“Besides being one of my best friends, (Allmendinger) is one of the best racing drivers in any type of car, period,” Shank wrote. “Not to mention he literally is one of the founding corner stones of Michael Shank Racing.”
But it was the next sentence in the same tweet that said a lot: if there was no room in the NASCAR inn for Allmendinger next season, he absolutely, positively has a home with Shank.
“You can bet your ass you will be seeing him on one of my cars in the future!” Shank added.
Allmendinger would make an excellent fit for MSR on the sports car side. He’s a road course racer at heart and by training.
Plus, he would be a strong addition to a series that not only has several outstanding drivers already, but in the last two seasons added former IndyCar drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves, who have become quite at home and successful in IMSA.
Why, it wouldn’t be surprising if Allmendinger even gets a one-off ride with Shank in his IndyCar operation with co-owner Jim Meyer (Meyer Shank Racing) for the 2019 Indy 500 with Englishman Jack Harvey as his teammate.
Sure, this is all speculation – if not wishful thinking – but one thing appears pretty clear: For a guy who doesn’t have a job yet for 2019, Allmendinger already appears to have plenty of potential options.