COMMENTARY | Roger Penske is a man whose opinion I trust very well when it comes to racing decisions.
When A.J. Allmendinger had his troubles last year relating to a failed drug test, Penske had to let Allmendinger go for the immediate future, but decided to keep him in the Penske fold. There was something he liked in A.J. still, and he believed the failed drug test wasn't indicative of A.J.'s true character. Many fans and pundits doubted Penske's choice to keep A.J. close. But Penske has since run Allmendinger in his cars on both the open-wheel and NASCAR sides, and on Saturday at Road America, we finally got to see why he wasn't willing to let go of Allmendinger from his driver roster.
Allmendinger came through big for Penske at Road America, first claiming the pole and then going on to win in pretty dominating fashion, claiming his first NASCAR win in the process.
There was plenty of the usual chaos that dominates road course racing in recent years, but luckily for Allmendinger it was mostly contained to happening behind him on the track. There was one instance where he got pushed out of the lead and had to take it back, but that led to one of the best parts of the entire race.
Showing his road racing chops, A.J. went outside then dove back to the inside to take the lead in spectacular fashion, and proceeded to maintain the lead despite the race going to a couple green-white-checkered restarts.
Other drivers were strong -- including Justin Allgaier, Owen Kelly, Billy Johnson -- but Allmendinger was the class of the field at Road America.
Roger Penske knew this day would come, despite most fans and media folks having written A.J.'s career off after the drug test issue last year. That was something people just don't come back from, common logic said, but now it appears A.J.'s future could be bright if this type of performance keeps happening.
In May, there was a strong Indy 500 run in a Penske car for Allmendinger, but then disappointment later in May when he crashed out on Lap 1 of both races of an Indaycar doubleheader in Detroit. After those wrecks, he sounded despondent and wondered what was next for him.
Penske came through again for Allmendinger, letting A.J. have the 22 ride for some Nationwide races, including Road America. Allmendinger capitalized in the best way possible by winning on Saturday, giving his once-sagging career a lot of juice in the process.
Easy to root for A.J.
I'm very happy to see this outcome, as A.J. comes across to me as a very likeable guy who seems to have his head on straight and is very fan-friendly. Most fans love a comeback story, and this is definitely a strong comeback for Allmendinger that fans can really support.
He had some things going on in his life last year that led to an unfortunate set of circumstances. What A.J. said was a one-time mistake led to the failed drug test, but unlike Jeremy Mayfield, Allmendinger didn't question the result of the drug test. He agreed to go through whatever program NASCAR wanted him to do to get his career back on track. He recognized that any fight would have been a losing one and could set his career back to square one.
Flash forward a season and it's pretty amazing to see what A.J. has done. He has proven Penske right and the doubters wrong. Too often in this world we are quick to dismiss people going through tough times as forever lost, but A.J.'s case shows us that when people are willing to change their lives for the better, good things can happen and careers can be revived.
I'm not sure if a full-time Nationwide or Cup ride is in the immediate future for Allmendinger, but this win is very important to him regardless. It gives Penske more leverage if he's trying to build a sponsor relationship with Allmendinger that would allow A.J. to race more in Cup or Nationwide, and it shows the racing world that any issues A.J. has had in the past are long gone and he is a reliable hire.
Allmendinger has show he is still a talented driver who can compete up front if he's in the proper equipment. He's probably never going to be a superstar, but he can be a very serviceable driver for someone in Cup or Nationwide -- and you can bet he'll stick by Penske as long as the Captain wants him, in the wake of all the support he's gotten even through all the controversy.
It's so rare to see such a positive comeback story like this, and I'm glad that I'm able to see it happen. It's a story of loyalty paying off in a sport where loyalty is pretty much extinct.
Great racing at Road America
If you missed the Road America race, you missed a good one. I don't get folks who don't like road racing, as it's often more action-packed than oval races.
Saturday was no exception, as drivers from all over the world put on a great show at Road America with no shortage of beating and banging. There was even an international tiff between Max Papis and Billy Johnson, with Papis slapping Johnson on the helmet (yes, he slapped him before he took his helmet off, which was hilarious but also quite silly; and even worse, Johnson didn't even respond).
Up next on the road course menu: Sonoma Cup race on Sunday -- which I expect will be another exciting race, as the double-file restarts have definitely spiced up the overall state of NASCAR road racing in recent years.
Kurt Busch has a legitimate shot to win, but it'll probably be a more traditional road course leader like Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose or Jeff Gordon. And while it would be cool to see, don't expect any ringers like Boris Said or Jacques Villeneuve to pull off the upset, as they typically don't have the equipment to contend, barring some strange strategy call working out.
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
- Sports & Recreation
- Motor Racing
- Roger Penske
- Road America