COMMENTARY | Last year, if you would have told me A.J. Allmendinger would be hopping between NASCAR and IndyCar rides and on a path to career rehabilitation, I would have laughed at you.
He had been suspended from NASCAR for violation of its substance policy, and it appeared that at a very young age, his racing career would be brought to a fast end.
But thanks in large part to Roger Penske, the team owner who had to fire Allmendinger last year after the failed drug test and now has hired Allmendinger again to drive an IndyCar for him, the Dinger is back on track, an amazing turnaround and a testament to what happens when you actually commit to making a change in your life.
There was good reason for me and others to doubt what Allmendinger's future held. Previous cases of failed drug tests led to nothing but bad news. See the stories of Shane Hmiel and Jeremy Mayfield for evidence of that.
But A.J. seemed genuinely apologetic about his failed test, offered an explanation that, while not great, seemed at least remotely plausible. At the time, his life was in upheaval on the personal end, too, as he was in the process of a divorce.
But after that tumultuous year, things are looking up again for A.J. Here he is with a shot at having a competitive ride in the Indy 500. Not a bad turnaround from seemingly ruining his career due to a failed drug test. In addition to his IndyCar ride, he is also driving some races for the James Finch-owned No. 51 car in NASCAR -- not exactly a competitive ride, but he's still keeping his name in the stock-car world.
Allmendinger was testing his Penske IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park on Monday, and he talked about his unique schedule this year, and what it's like to go back and forth between various rides.
"I was a little nervous getting back in the Cup car at Phoenix because I hadn't even drove one of the new cars and I hadn't been in a stock car for over four months," he said. "I think it's going to be more of a transition getting back to the IndyCar every time than going from the IndyCar back to the stock car. That's what makes it fun. That's what makes being a part of this just a challenge for me because I'm challenging myself every week just to adapt to something new. If I didn't think I could do it, I wouldn't be here. I'm excited about that and those chances to adapt back and forth. There's not a lot of drivers out there that can get to say that they've raced a sports car, they are going to race a stock car and they are going to go race an IndyCar during the year. I'm excited about that."
And looking back on his past mistakes and where his life has taken him in the past year, Allmendinger remained a bit philosophical, knowing that the next step we're taking isn't always what's expected.
"I've learned quickly in life that you just take everything as it comes. You take one day at a time and you don't say no to anything and you expect everything to happen," he explained. "Did I think it would happen like this? No, but I love the IndyCar Series. It's not like I left and stopped watching. I've still got a lot of friends in this series and I think this series has a lot of great things to offer. For myself, putting myself against some of the best in the world and I know that's going to be a lot of hard work. I don't expect to just come in and dominate. It's going to be a lot of hard work. These guys are the best for a reason. I love the challenge and I'm excited to have this opportunity. I feel honored to have this opportunity. I'm going to do everything I can to make it right."
You can tell from the way Allmendinger talks that he really wants to get back into the good graces of race fans who may have been turned off by his little brush with the drug-testing police last year. From my experiences covering races at the track, I've always found A.J. to be a very nice guy, always very good with the fans, and willing to sign an autograph when other drivers might just walk by.
The way I see it, his life took a bad turn, some things happened, and he paid the consequences. I'm genuinely rooting for him to get back on track with his racing career and life in general. You can tell that he took NASCAR's rehabilitation program seriously, and, obviously, a guy as smart as Roger Penske wouldn't put him back in an IndyCar ride if he wasn't up to the standards of the Penske racing team.
If he can put together a successful year in IndyCar competition and at the same time get back into the good graces of NASCAR fans this year, it will be one of the best turnaround success stories in racing in recent years.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.