AJ Allmendinger’s story is an amazing one; something Hollywood movies are made of and I firmly believe that there is so much more to this impressive resurgence that has yet to come to fruition. AJ comes from an open wheel background and made his name known in CART. Since that debut in the 2004 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, AJ has been forced to endure some fairly dark days and also enjoy a few unbelievable ones.
Before joining the big leagues, he won championships in the International Kart Federation, Barber Dodge Pro Series and in the Champ Car Atlantic Championship. AJ found little success in his first two seasons racing CART, but all that changed when he joined forces with Gerry Forsythe in preparation for 2006. He won his first race in just his 5th start with the team and went on a tear winning three races in succession. He went on to win five races that year and finishing 3rd in the standings to Justin Wilson and Sebastian Bourdais. During the year, he also made his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (CWTS) debut at Loudon finishing a respectable 13th which he followed up with an impressive 5th at Talladega.
He was pushed up the ranks by Red Bull way too fast in my opinion and after just three CWTS starts, he found himself in Cup. The new team and rookie driver AJ Allmendinger obviously struggled in 2007 with a best finish of 15th in 17 starts. He also made a few appearances in Nationwide and Trucks that year nearly winning a Truck event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. After failing to make a handful of races early on in 2008, he was temporarily replaced by Mike Skinner to help teach him. It worked very well as his results immediately improved posting his first career top 10 finish at the Cup level in the Brickyard 400. The team released him towards the end of the year though; a move that confused many people and didn’t make much sense. In 2009, he raced full-time for what is now known as Richard Petty Motorsports. He started his tenure with the team off very well finishing 3rd in his first ever Daytona 500. Only three other drivers in history have performed so well in their first race at the legendary track.
2009 was a decent year for AJ but 2010 was even better winning his first pole at Phoenix and bringing home a solid top 20 points finish. In 2011, he continued to improve and most saw his first Cup victory just over the horizon. A top 15 points finish and 10 top 10’s made it his best season to date and unfortunately, his last full-time season for the foreseeable future. Roger Penske saw something in AJ and put him behind the wheel of his No.22 for the 2012 season; a life changing year for the young racecar driver.
Prior to the season commencing, he took part in the 24 Hours of Daytona having an epic battle with sports car legend Allan McNish late in the going. Over the radio, McNish was told to keep harassing Allmendinger who would crumble under the pressure. Well, Allan got alongside him and AJ’s NASCAR senses must have kicked in as he proceeded to door slam the Scottish driver at 150mph around the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. Allmendninger won the race and shocked the racing world; a race that would solidify him as a truly talented racecar driver and gain him credence among his fellow competitors. He looked one of the best road racing has to offer in the eyes and he did not blink. A large contingent of fans and media members believed he would finally win and maybe even make the chase in his first year with Penske. Allmendinger nearly won Martinsville finishing a career best 2nd to Ryan Newman but his promising Cup career came to a grinding halt on July 7th, 2012.
He failed a drug test due to an imprudent decision and was indefinitely suspended from competition by NASCAR. The positive test results were due to him unknowingly taking Adderall; an amphetamine used to treat ADHD that a friend told him was an energy pill. He was subsequently released from Penske Racing and he then went through NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program resulting in the complete abatement of his ban from competition. He made his return at Charlotte in October finishing 24th for Phoenix Racing. He’s run a handful of Cup races since then for the team with his best race coming at Phoenix earlier this year ending the race 11th. He will also make five starts for JTG in 2013 sharing the ride with Bobby Labonte.
Roger Penske refused to give up on AJ and put him in an Indycar for select races this year. He blew the world away in the Indy 500 leading 23 laps and finishing 7th. The only thing stopping him from snagging a potential victory was when his seat belt unfastened itself half-way through the event and he was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop. The very next week at Belle Isle, he was knocked right back down by the humbling sport of auto racing crashing heavily in both duel races before he even completed a lap.
His next start for Roger came at Road America in the NASCAR Nationwide Series; his first race in that division in nearly five years. The morning of the race, he tweeted that he dreamed he won the event and he actually ended up winning the pole for the race a few hours later. He raced hard, battled fiercely and found himself in contention in the closing laps as he tried to hang on after a barrage of late race cautions. Both sides were beaten and battered but he was still pushing…that is until Billy Johnson knocked him off the road and took the lead sending AJ back to 5th or 6th. It didn’t rattle him though as he immediately began taking positions back aggressively. He muscled his way up to 3rd and set his sights on Johnson. In a remarkable show of talent and tenacity, he drove from 3rd to the back bumper of Johnson in one corner sending him off the track and out of way. AJ Allmendinger would not be denied and in the end, he took the war scarred No.22 to victory lane! It was his first win ever in NASCAR and quite an emotional one at at that.
With the fans roaring and Twitter blowing up, AJ didn’t waste any time thanking the man that made this day possible; Roger Penske. We thank you too Roger for giving this phenomenal young talent another chance. AJ Allmendinger is a very rare breed; not too many drivers are capable of winning in open wheel, sports cars and stock cars. I believe we will see him in a full-time Cup car in the future and we will certainly see him in victory lane again.
He did more than win a race at Road America; he made a powerful statement. He made it known to the world that he is here to stay and isn’t going anywhere. He will not back down, he will persevere and he will succeed. He’s revived a career that seemed doomed less than a year ago and with help from the very man that was forced to fire him nonetheless. We should all respect this man very much not only for the raw skill he possesses but for his determination and against all odds; he is still living the NASCAR dream.