The name was called – AJ Allmendinger – and in an instant, one life was gifted a dream. No, that winning lotto ticket didn’t come with millions but the man who presented it, Roger Penske, had the perfect consolation prize for a career that seemed to have stalled out forever between “satisfactory” and “should have been.” Every open-wheeler’s childhood idol, an aging owner in desperation mode had turned towards an outgoing Californian to save face, the perfect compromise in the face of a public relations nightmare that gave a pink slip to former Cup Series champion Kurt Busch.
All his life, the ‘Dinger had wanted to drive for the best. Ideally, it was to be in IndyCar but when NASCAR came calling, he adjusted to keep the chance for “A”-level opportunities flowing. Now, the Californian was handed the keys to the castle for an owner who could offer him top equipment for both.
“The way [Penske] goes about just taking care of his guys is first class and top notch,” he said back in December. “To have Mr. Penske personally want you to drive his race car is a thing that gives me a lot of confidence… it’s been the pinnacle.”
“I know where I’m at and the level of my career – and it’s do or die.”
That’s refreshing honesty at its finest, one of the reasons ‘Dinger always stood out in a sea of snooze-worthy NASCAR stars. But this Monday, it’s also the man’s greatest trait come back to bite him; one of racing’s true characters finds his career gasping for breath.
The 2012 grave for ‘Dinger will officially be dug this week, when NASCAR tests his “B” sample after a failed drug test got him pulled from Daytona mere hours before the start of the Cup race Saturday night. For now, all parties are saying all the right things: Penske has no pink slip; the driver is staying mum; the sport is cautioning, “wait for all the facts, ma’am.” But one gets the sense that after NASCAR officials’ last public debacle with drugs, a certain Jeremy Mayfield scandal played out on a grand scale they wouldn’t play the suspension card unless all their ducks were _perfectly_ aligned. In case you’ve been under a rock, Mayfield’s suspension for testing positive came under similar circumstances: last-minute decision, vague information at first and a sense of shock that he was the one in the NASCAR paddock busted for God-knows-what. Three years, several failed lawsuits, and a bankruptcy later, among other criminal charges everybody lost. Yes, Mayfield may have been guilty but poor handling of samples and a confusing list of policies left us with no winners, NASCAR executives and officials looking like amateurs in what best could be described as a sloppy mess.
No, the second time around this sport won’t make the same mistakes, not with a driver employed by one of its most legendary (and rich) people that has the capacity to punch back. So for Penske, what lies ahead is nothing but a surprising end to a pairing that seemed perfect for both sides at the start. Yes, the ‘Dinger was winless on the Cup circuit at the time of selection but filled with boundless enthusiasm that 2012 would be the year. So was the media, me included, who thought this pairing could put itself together into some kind of sleeper team by the middle of Spring. And why not? Despite being snapped up late, in mid-December with five years of experience under ‘Dinger’s belt, a Chase-ready team was suddenly paired with a top-15 points man who knew the importance of the ride that had been handed to him.
“I feel like I’ve made good progression,” he said, a career defined by being good, just never good enough to secure a long-term future. “This [ride] is going to allow me to take the next step of my career and really contend for race wins, try and make the Chase.”
“[But] when the season starts, you’ve just got to be solid to start. You can’t put yourself in a hole. So I think that’s going to be a big thing for us is just to try to gel together as quick as possible.”
Allmendinger spoke those words with gusto; after all, we’re taught, as children how the fairy tale is supposed to play out. The start of 2012 even offered the ‘Dinger a little dose of fake potential; in February, he won the 24 Hours of Daytona in Grand Am and entered Sprint Cup Speedweeks with more momentum than any other. Million-dollar sponsor, million-dollar ride… what could go wrong?
Turns out it was just about everything. On Daytona’s 15th lap, Ryan Newman pulled out on pit road and Allmendinger just didn’t see him; a minor hit, in the grand scheme of things but enough to turn a potential winning Daytona 500 car into 34th. One week later, he helped precipitate a multi-car wreck at Phoenix and the disaster was on. Engine problems, fuel injection issues, wrecks, poor pit calls – ‘Dinger’s season has contained just about every type of catastrophe imaginable. Chase? Try being chased out of the playoff picture by Memorial Day, leading just 99 laps with a car that last season won two races and seemed primed to compete for the championship last September.
What a cruel world, as adults when we learn those perfect endings aren’t guaranteed.
“I know there’s a lot of pressure,” the ‘Dinger explained seven months back, relishing the dream before it all went kaput. “I’m not blind to it. But for me, if I didn’t feel like I could do that I’d just be wasting everybody’s time and then I wouldn’t be there. I know the pressure is there, and I’m ready to take it on.”
In hindsight, you wonder if he took on a little too much. There is such a thing as trying too hard, and as frustration mounted the ‘Dinger just wasn’t the same. Through the years, in interviews the man has been marked by his boundless optimism, a desire to do well blended perfectly with a fun-loving competitive spirit. He was the guy that would try like hell to beat you, then crack you a cold one afterwards, pay for it, and become the life of the party.
“I’m going to be smiling, showing up to the racetrack every weekend,” he claimed way back when. “This is what I love to do, and if I wasn’t smiling, I shouldn’t be driving racecars.”
One wonders when the last time ‘Dinger was truly that happy behind the wheel. Listening intently to his radio transmissions, an internal project at Dover and Pocono last month, revealed a man whose boiling point had been reached months earlier. Communication with crew chief Todd Gordon was testy, sometimes counterproductive; both sides seemed to not know how to handle the other. It had all the makings of a bad first date, no chemistry on either side except everyone knew they had to stick it out another four months.
Of course, that was before “extenuating circumstances” came into play; a second positive sample and this union won’t last four more days. Gone is that sense of innocence, a kidlike Californian that’s been forced to grow up in a hurry at age 30. At best, it’s an innocuous drug on the list but an egregious error for a driver to not know what’s against NASCAR policy; at worst, we’ve got a driver with private problems none of us may ever truly know or understand.
All we can say for certain is, the moment the word “suspension” was uttered it doesn’t matter how this latest flap turns out. AJ Allmendinger’s best opportunity has already become his worst, the nightmare you never like to see but know happens in a world where everyone can’t win. For every Tony Stewart, there’s a Mayfield, wishing for all the trophies someone else took to their living room. For every Brad Keselowski, the Penske driver who _will_ be challenging for a championship there’s an AJ, looking for a job and forever lusting after that opportunity to succeed he’ll never have.
“I’ve had to go through a lot to stay in the sport,” he said last December. “Sometimes, it can be cruel. But you can either do two things: you can keep going and work harder to stay in the sport or you can just give up, and I’m a guy that’s never going to give up.”
We’re about to see if Allmendinger’s honesty will continue, even in what’s about to be the most trying of times. For the true mark of a man will be what happens after a lifetime dream blows up directly in his face.