Americans love second chances. The redemption theme seems to fit well into our national love of the underdog, and there's no better place to find such stories than in professional sports.
NASCAR, of course, is no exception. Race teams miss the Chase one year and rebound the next; drivers get ousted from one team and shine brighter with another.
But what happens when a Sprint Cup Series driver fails a drug test and loses the best ride he's ever had? That's the question with AJ Allmendinger, and the answer is unclear because there's no precedent.
Is Allmendinger's career over, or is there still hope for his return?
"People like a comeback story," Jimmie Johnson told reporters Friday at Pocono Raceway. "If AJ is committed to the process and getting back, I'm sure there will be some opportunities. I don't think it's going to be the one he wants, to start. But over time, I would assume he could get back to a good spot."
Johnson may believe what he said, but he's also being optimistic. In a sponsor-driven sport with very few roster spots available, the chances of Allmendinger landing a ride as good as Penske Racing's No. 22 car – which he lost this week – are minuscule.
And the odds of him getting a big-money sponsor to back his efforts are even smaller. So at this point, it's very difficult to envision Allmendinger's road back to a top ride.
Whatever substance Allmendinger ingested – and whether it was intentional or not – the driver had the greatest opportunity of his NASCAR career and blew it. It was likely not only his best chance to succeed, but his last chance.
Should he choose to return, what opportunities await him? A ride at Phoenix Racing? A start-and-park car? Teams such as Hendrick, Gibbs, Roush, Childress and Penske are all out of the question.
Allmendinger might be better off giving up on his NASCAR dream and returning to open-wheel cars, where he once shined. In 2006, before making the jump to stock cars, Allmendinger won five Champ Car races. He certainly would have a chance to excel on both road races and ovals in IndyCar with a good ride.
But clearly, that's not what he wanted. If open-wheel is where he desired to be, Allmendinger wouldn't have come to NASCAR and busted his butt for six years to try and improve.
"In the car, he was developing at a great pace," Johnson said. "He was showing plenty of speed and was very competitive."
Allmendinger was mentioned by many pundits as the driver likeliest to be NASCAR's next first-time winner; his career always seemed just on the edge of a breakthrough, but it never quite got there.
Now, it probably never will.
Why? For two main reasons: First, because of the drug suspension taking him out of the car; second, because he didn't have enough NASCAR success prior to the suspension.
The man who Allmendinger replaced at Penske – Kurt Busch – has gotten a second chance. And a third, fourth and fifth chance, for that matter. But that's because Busch is regarded as such a talent that he might always be able to get a ride; after all, NASCAR teams can overlook nearly anything when it comes to winning races.
In the meantime, NASCAR continues on without Allmendinger. It all seems so callous in some ways, but races have taken place at New Hampshire and Indianapolis and now Pocono without missing a beat despite Allmendinger's absence.
Racing doesn't stop for anyone. Even if a driver is killed, the cars go to the track the next week and race on.
In Allmendinger's case, it wasn't the driver who was killed, but his career. His then-Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski made some strong comments at New Hampshire – he called a positive drug test a "death sentence for your career" – and they struck some people as excessive.
"To me, it's like watching somebody get killed, because you know what it is to that person's career," he said. "It's a devastating moment."
Sure enough, team owner Roger Penske met face-to-face with Allmendinger this week and informed him he would no longer be driving for the team even after he completes NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program.
If you're looking for sunshine and rainbows here, there aren't any. This is a story of an opportunity lost; a chance at redemption may never come in NASCAR.
Of course, this doesn't mean Allmendinger can't redeem himself in the eyes of his fans and competitors.
"Everybody makes mistakes, and if you own up to your mistakes and learn and grow from it and move on, then people are usually responsive to that," Johnson said.
The problem is this: In NASCAR, there's a difference between forgiveness and opportunity. Allmendinger may have sentiment on his side after a comeback, but it won't translate into a top ride.
It's sad, really. But NASCAR keeps rolling on, regardless of the circumstances. Those in the garage shake their heads, say, "That's a shame" and get back to work.
There are races to run, with or without AJ Allmendinger.
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