COMMENTARY | LEXINGTON, Ohio - Everything was just beginning to take shape for A.J. Allmendinger.
After paying his dues and rising through the ranks, the former open wheel star had finally made it to the big time. Allmendinger had a quality NASCAR Sprint Cup ride driving for one of auto racing's all-time legendary owners, Roger Penske, and it looked like it was only a matter of time before he was challenging for wins and battling for a spot it in the Chase.
But just as fast as Allmendinger's rise through NASCAR had occurred, it all came crashing back to earth when he tested positive for a banned substance in July of 2012. Suddenly, Allmendinger found himself temporarily suspended from NASCAR and, before long, without a ride when he was released from his contract with Penske.
That was last August, a little more than one year ago.
What a difference a year can make.
After completing the Road to Recovery program and being reinstated by NASCAR in September, Allmendinger was given a second chance at the sport he loves. A number of Sprint Cup teams reached out to him to drive partial schedules in 2013, among them Phoenix Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing. Before long Roger Penske himself reached out to Allmendinger looking to give the budding young star a second chance, announcing that he would run two races in the Nationwide Series this season and a partial schedule in IndyCar.
Before long, Allmendinger was back to his winning ways.
On Saturday at the inaugural Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Allmendinger won in dominating fashion. He lead 73 of 94 laps in the No. 22 Discount Tires Ford Mustang, holding on to take the checkers over Michael McDowell after a two-lap dash to the finish following a late caution. With the win Allmendinger is a perfect two-for-two driving for Penske in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2013.
It is safe to say things have turned around in a major way for the 31-year-old California native.
"It is all about growing. Growing as a person and growing as a driver. Obviously I would have liked to have grown a different way, but in the long run it has been really good for me," Allmendinger said. "I think my career is still a book to be written. How it ends, I just don't know yet. But I do think that the stuff I have gone through has been good for me. I have grown from it and it actually helped me get a better perspective on everything in my life."
Not long after completing the Road to Recovery program, Allmendinger rededicated himself to the sport. In his mind, he wasn't going to let this bump in the road slow him down. Instead, he was going to use it as an opportunity to learn and grow from it.
He simply never dreamed that his second chance would take him this far.
Allmendinger has won both of his races driving for "The Captain" in the Nationwide Series this season, winning at Road America in June before winning Saturday's race at Mid-Ohio. He also finished seventh at the Indianapolis 500 in May, leading 23 laps before a loose seatbelt cost him an opportunity at the win, and he was part of the winning team at the Rolex 24 at Daytona back in February.
"I have got to experience a lot of cool things that I didn't expect to experience. To compete in the Indy 500 for Roger Penske was just an amazing experience and to have a real shot to win the race, to lead laps, it was nothing that I will ever forget. And to win a Nationwide race with Roger, it has just been an amazing experience," Allmendinger said. "All of the different teams I have got to drive for and all of the different people I have got to work with, it has helped make me who I am today and that is a driver who is ready to go out there and make a difference."
Allmendinger's victory Saturday also helped close the gap in the owners championship between Penske and the No. 54 owned by Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series. It is one of the few championships remaining on Penske's resume and Allmendinger admits that he would love to play a role in getting the win. The No. 22 Ford has visited victory lane eight times this season with Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano behind the wheel.
"They have fought so hard for the owners championship, everyone on this team has done such an amazing job and I want to do everything I can to get them into the team owners points lead," Allmendinger said. "That is one of the championships that Roger doesn't have in the sport so that would be nice to help them finally win it."
So what's next for Allmendinger? If 2013 is any indication, it won't be long before he is back racing fulltime. Allmendinger is simply too talented not to be part of a big show on Sundays. He has shown in the past that he can be successful even in marginal equipment and, with his renewed passion for the sport, Allmendinger is a championship contender just waiting to happen.
But where? He has shown flashes of brilliance in NASCAR, but he also has a strong history in open wheel and after getting a taste of Indy, he admits that he was hooked.But no matter what door is opened next, you haven't heard the last of Allmendinger as a major player.
"At the end of the day it is all about winning for me. I can't change the past and I can't predict the future, but I can do everything I can today out on the track," Allmendinger said. "These past few months have been so much fun. Hopefully that won't end anytime soon."
NOTE: L.A. Crum was at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course covering this weekend's racing action.
L.A. Crum is a professional writer and journalist from Ohio. He is an avid fan of motorsports and college athletics and has worked with many of the top teams and drivers in the racing industry during his decade long career. He is a proud graduate of Marshall University.
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