The official firing was still three days away, and the two hadn't even spoken face-to-face yet, but even on Sunday morning you could tell Roger Penske had made up his mind. In a small room at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next to where the drivers' meeting had just concluded, the car owner spoke to a handful of reporters about his suspended driver, AJ Allmendinger. Penske said all the right things -- but said them in a way that left little doubt as to what would happen next.
"I want to see him land on his feet," Penske said then, in the singular comment that made it clear Allmendinger's fall wasn't finished just yet. Penske's phone was ringing off the hook with calls from other drivers or their representatives, all of them interested in a ride that was fully sponsored and capable of winning races with the right man behind the wheel. He had let people go who had flunked drug tests administered by his own company. Allmendinger was a good kid, but he had made a mistake. It all had the unmistakable air of a fait accompli. The press release sent out Wednesday seemed academic, the words formalizing something everyone already knew.
Allmendinger was out of the No. 22 car, released because of a positive drug test that was followed by an indefinite suspension. It was the only move for Penske to make, and one the team would probably have made at the end of the season whether Allmendinger had flunked that drug test or not. Poor performance on the race track, an indefinite suspension, no clear timetable for reinstatement, a ready and eager replacement, a primary sponsor that has to be sick of seeing its drivers in the news for all the wrong reasons -- it was a perfect storm, really, and it swept up Allmendinger and carried him away. No question, this all goes back to the driver either not knowing what he was taking, or taking something he shouldn't have. But it quickly became much bigger than him.
So now Allmendinger is out, four months before he likely would have been released for performance reasons anyway, and with one move Penske sheds itself of a burden and begins positioning what in all rights should be a championship-contending car for 2013. Of course, that's not to say there isn't fault in all this. The belabored manner in which Allmendinger's camp slow-played the aftermath of his positive drug test, which the driver's business manager said was for amphetamines, only ratcheted up the doubt. And from a performance perspective, Penske clearly left better options on the table in the rush to fill Kurt Busch's seat after last season. The likes of Brian Vickers and David Ragan have to be watching all this while shaking their heads.
So no, this wasn't an ideal marriage, and it was probably a stop-gap solution to begin with, and it probably could have been handled a little better all around. But now it's over, and Sam Hornish Jr. takes control of the No. 22 car for the foreseeable future, and everyone moves on -- some more easily than others.
What happens to Allmendinger? He continues his participation in NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, following the steps necessary for reinstatement. No one, except perhaps the driver's program administrator, knows exactly how long that will take. But when the time comes and Allmendinger is given the green light to return to a race car, he'll almost certainly have to do a lot of explaining to a lot of people. And like his predecessor at Penske, he will probably be forced to settle for a much less competitive ride than he's been accustomed to -- if one is even available at all.
The organization he leaves behind is in a much better position, with a chance to upgrade a program that Busch proved was able to win races and contend for the championship. Hornish is in the vehicle for now, although he suddenly faces hurdles like this split weekend involving the Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway and Iowa Speedway's event in the Nationwide Series, in which the former Indy 500 winner is a title contender. There's another one coming soon, with one series in Michigan and another in Montreal, and Penske has a sponsor commitment for a few Cup races with a third car -- originally targeted for Hornish -- later this season. For a team that wants to keep the No. 22 competitive, and a driver who's trying to stay in championship contention, these are not small headaches.
But they are temporary ones. From a driver standpoint, Penske will have a number of options for next season, beginning in-house with Hornish, who has enjoyed a great year in Nationwide and is yearning to get back to Cup. There's Joey Logano, whom Joe Gibbs Racing wants to retain if it can fund the program around him, although there are no guarantees toward that end. There's former Penske driver Ryan Newman, whom Stewart-Haas Racing wants to keep, but will need to go somewhere if sponsorship doesn't materialize. There's Vickers, shining in a limited role at Michael Waltrip Racing. There's Nationwide points leader Elliott Sadler, itching for another chance in the big leagues. And there's Trevor Bayne, whom Penske inquired about last time the ride was open, and might have a better shot at now that the team is switching to Ford.
So yes, Penske will have its pick, and an ideal opportunity to remake the No. 22 into a strong stable mate to Brad Keselowski's No. 2 car, and the kind of operation a fully funded program should be. If the organization can't wrangle Bayne loose from Jack Roush, then Logano perhaps makes the most sense given his youth -- although we've been hearing about him forever, the kid is amazingly still just 22 -- and potential. All those good candidates present a golden chance to make the right hire, one that will cut hopefully down on the high rate of turnover in what's supposed to be an elite ride, and allow primary sponsor Shell/Pennzoil to stop squirming nervously over the behavior of its drivers.
Regardless, this is all about looking forward, and not back. Penske made that much clear with his actions this week. This is a crisp break, of the kind you'd expect from an organization where the executives wear white shirts and the shop floor gleams like a hospital ward. It fits with the Penske way, separating yourself from something like this, but doing so as graciously as possible. After Sunday, there was no question as to what decision Roger Penske would make regarding AJ Allmendinger. Because given the factors, it really wasn't a decision at all.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.