AJ Allmendinger seemed to chafe at the notion he had unfinished business to resolve after testing positive for a banned substance (amphetamines) July 7, getting suspended by NASCAR, and losing his Sprint Cup ride in the No. 22 Dodge fielded by owner Roger Penske.
So when he straps into one of Penske’s cars to begin preparations for the 97th Indianapolis 500, Allmendinger will not be focused on resurrecting his career. He’ll be more concerned with the job at hand.
“I used that term when I first got back, but it’s almost the wrong term, because it’s not unfinished business,” Allmendinger said on the phone Thursday from his home in North Carolina. “It’s not how I wanted to go out and I still have a lot of goals that I want to try and accomplish in NASCAR racing.’’
After NASCAR reinstated him Sept. 18, Allmendinger took the first steps in his road to redemption when he partnered with Phoenix Racing’s single-car operation to drive at Charlotte (24th), Kansas (crash, 35th), Martinsville (28th), and Texas (crash, 36th).
“I have goals and I didn’t reach them when I was in NASCAR, and I want to try to reach them,’’ he said. “But at the same time, to have a chance to race Indy cars and see the depth of the field and the level of competition has been fun, too. I enjoy both disciplines of racing a lot and I enjoy them for different reasons.’’
Although Allmendinger lost his Sprint Cup ride with Penske following his suspension, the owner never abandoned the 31-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif., providing him with support, counsel, and an opportunity to drive one of his three cars at the Indy 500.
“That meant a lot,’’ said Allmendinger, who has driven for Penske in Indy car races at Birmingham, where he finished 19th, and at Long Beach, where a gearbox issue resulted in a 23d-place finish.
“It’s not even about being in the car for me. It’s not about getting to drive the car,’’ Allmendinger said. “It’s just the fact that he still wants me to be a part of it, really, part of his organization and his family, because he really does make the team like a family.’’
Even though he spent three seasons on the Champ Car World Series before making the jump to NASCAR in 2007, the transition from snarling 3,400-pound stock cars to sleek 1,600-pound open-wheel cars was a bit of an adjustment.
“Rick Mears had the perfect comment to me,’’ Allmendinger said of the four-time Indy 500 winner. “He said, ‘You know, A.J., when you’re running around on an oval in a stock car, and something’s going wrong, the car is going to yell at you. It’s going to slide around and you’re going to be able to catch it.’ But he said, ‘In an Indy car, it’s going to whisper to you, so you’ve got to listen very carefully.’ And that’s kind of true, in that sense that you really got to have a good feel for it.’’
While the Indy Car Series is in Brazil this weekend, Allmendinger is at home, preparing himself for rookie orientation May 11 at the Brickyard, where Penske Racing has known no peer.
“My goal is to win, and I know that I’ll be in equipment that can easily go win that race,’’ Allmendinger said. “If you look at the Indy 500, it’s a race that allows for upsets and things like that.
“The biggest thing about that race is that there’s so much time that goes into it that you can’t get ahead of yourself. You can’t show up and say right away, first lap on the race track, ‘I’m there to win.’ First lap on the race track, I’m there to learn.’’
In a larger sense, the adversity Allmendinger faced last season served as a teachable moment. He’s become more introspective.
“I’ll be the first to admit, did I put myself in a stupid position? I sure did,’’ Allmendinger said. “It was a bad decision, but there was no [drug] problem. It was just a bad judgment. I’ve had to reflect on my life and start over in certain ways, and for that reason it’s been pretty good. So, yeah, it’s taught me a lot in life lessons.’’
Back in the saddle
Joe Gibbs Racing announced Thursday that Denny Hamlin, who suffered a compression fracture in the lumbar region of his spine in a frightening wall crash at Fontana, Calif., had been medically cleared to resume driving, but Hamlin was the first to leak the news when he tweeted, “I cannot wait to get back in car . . . The smell of fuel and tires . . . Ahhh.’’
After missing five races, Hamlin was behind the wheel of his No. 11 Toyota and turned 17 practice laps Friday at Talladega, before turning the wheel over to relief driver Brian Vickers, who is expected to relieve Hamlin in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.
“Obviously, it’s really good to get back, run at speed, and get the adrenaline pumping again,’’ said Hamlin, who is 71 points out of 20th in the standings. “It’s definitely good to be back in the car and hopefully start a real good run these next 17 weeks.’’
Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Va., sat out two races in his home state, at Martinsville and last week at Richmond, where he said there “wasn’t a full consensus’’ among his doctors, “so we decided to err on the safe side and sit Richmond out.
“What we’re basically going to do this weekend is going to be the equivalent of a quarterback hiking the ball and taking a knee,’’ Hamlin said. “We’re going to very much minimize our risk this weekend of reinjuring ourselves, which gives us one more week to heal.’’
Asked how painful it was to drive, Hamlin said, “There’s no discomfort inside the car at all. Really, the most discomfort is getting out of the car, that’s why we’re choosing to get out of the roof instead of the side window. Inside the car, I feel just like I did six or seven weeks ago.’’
Pole for Pastrana
Travis Pastrana recorded a milestone when he won his first NASCAR pole for Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Talladega with a run of 176.500 miles per hour at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Pastrana, a former X Games motocross champion and World Rally Championship driver, is driving for Jack Roush, who was all smiles afterward. “Any time Jack’s smiling, I’m smiling. That’s a good deal,’’ Pastrana said. “This Roush Fenway team has worked so hard. Chad [Norris], my crew chief, he’s like, ‘We’ve been putting everything together. Let’s go out there and get this thing.’ He had a lot of confidence in myself and the car, and it’s just awesome to be able to show the work these guys are putting together.” . . . After making quite a splash in her last restrictor-plate race, winning the pole and leading before finishing eighth in the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick hopes to handle better such end-of-race scenarios at Talladega. “I have a better idea of what it’s going to take, but it’s also circumstantial. Jimmie [Johnson, winner of the Daytona 500] told me after the race, ‘Look, I didn’t have a plan. The two times I’ve won now I didn’t have a plan going into the last lap.’ That is where the luck comes in and [being in the] right place at the right time.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.