By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HAMPTON, Ga. -- After 14 turbulent months, AJ Allmendinger finds himself where he never expected to be again -- back in a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride.
The announcement came Saturday in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center.
Allmendinger will drive the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing car in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series in 2014, the first year of a multiyear agreement.
Allmendinger will replace 2000 Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte, whose contract with the organization has not been renewed.
"In a way, I feel like I'm playing with house money," said Allmendinger, who at this time last year was serving an indefinite suspension from NASCAR racing for a violation of the sanctioning body's substance abuse policy.
"I didn't think I'd be back here. ... I never thought I'd have this opportunity again, so it's almost like starting over, but kind of being reborn and knowing that I have a real shot."
Last July at Daytona, Allmendinger was informed he had failed a random drug test administered a week earlier at Kentucky Speedway.
When a "B" sample test confirmed the positive test, team owner Roger Penske was forced to fire Allmendinger from the glamour ride he had earned only seventh months earlier.
After completing NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and gaining reinstatement, Allmendinger drove James Finch's Cup car late in the season, an opportunity Allmendinger considers critical in keeping his face and name in front of other potential owners.
Earlier this year, Penske offered Allmendinger the opportunity to drive for his IndyCar Series team.
Allmendinger led 23 laps in the Indianapolis 500 in May and ultimately finished seventh after having to pit from the lead to have his belts tightened.
In two Nationwide Series starts in Penske's No. 22 Nationwide car, at Road America and Mid-Ohio, Allmendinger won both times.
JTG Daugherty asked him to drive the No. 47 car to benchmark the team's progress with the new Gen-6 Cup car and the Electronic Fuel Injection system introduced last year.
Ultimately, those races blossomed into a full-time ride.
"Things just kind of kept falling into place, and I kind of said that I don't feel like I ever deserved it," Allmendinger said. "I didn't deserve the second chance, but I worked really hard to get there. I felt like I was more ready than I'd ever been, that if any opportunity ever came up, I was more prepared mentally, physically and emotionally to get in there and give my full effort.
"It's been a long journey over the last 12 months, but in a strange way, I'd never change it. As weird as that sounds, with the kind of the hell that I had to start going through initially, the place that I'm at now as a person ... I feel so much better about it."
Despite his status as a full-time Cup driver, Allmendinger won't rule out a Charlotte/Indy double next May, as long as Penske is willing.
"You'd have to ask Roger on that," Allmendinger said. "I can drive 1,100 miles on a Sunday; I'm good. If that opportunity's there, I'm not going to say no."
JTG Daugherty co-owner Tad Geschickter, ever mindful of who ultimately pays the bills, gave his enthusiastic endorsement of the plan.
"Absolutely," Geschickter said. "Memorial Day's the biggest charcoal holiday of the year. Let's do PR everywhere."
Kingsford Charcoal, of course, is one of the many brands that sponsor the No. 47 car.
If Mark Martin was devoting any time to his plans for 2014, that line of thinking came to an abrupt end when he opted to replace injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
"I will be real honest with you, I could care less about 2014 right now, because I am doing all I can to tread water," said Martin, who will make his second start in the No. 14 Chevy in Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta.
"Making this change (from Michael Waltrip racing to Stewart-Haas) was pretty huge, because not only is it different crew guys work on the car, which really isn't a huge thing, but it's a whole different thought process.
"It's a whole different bunch of guys that I didn't have a chance to go to test in February and go hang out in the shop. ... So I am really pushed and driven to try to get immersed in this team and figure out what I like in these cars so that we can start putting that in there week to week."
Quite simply, thoughts and plans for next year will have to wait.
"For me, making a decision on what I do in 2014 is not important right now," Martin said. "I'm in no hurry, because I'm not really worried about what I do. I do have a focus on what I can do in NASCAR. I want to do more in NASCAR than drive race cars. I want to do more than that.
"I had a good time at MWR and they let me be a part of that organization a little bit more than just to show up and drive driver. And I want to grow more of that. So that's of great interest to me and is where my primary focus was before Tony's No. 14 car came up. After that, it's like I'm not worried. I've got to stay focused on what's in front of me."
Former Nationwide Series champion Carl Edwards doesn't drive in NASCAR's second-highest classification these days -- except when he can help a teammate.
During Saturday's NNS practice, Edwards turned a few laps in Travis Pastrana's No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, at Pastrana's request.
"I was kind of going down a different route than my teammates," Pastrana said. "So I just wanted to verify, because every time I've gone down a different route than my teammates, we've thought we were good, and then we've gone into the race and hit walls and crashed and stuff.
"So Carl got in, and he said the exact same thing that I was feeling. So I don't know if it's right, but at least I got someone else to verify it."
Denny Hamlin will have to give up his fourth-place starting position for Sunday night's Sprint Cup race after his team changed the engine in the No. 11 Toyota after Saturday's first practice.
That's the second change for a Toyota Racing Development engine this weekend. The engine in Brian Vickers' No. 55 Camry was replaced before practice on Friday.
Because of NASCAR's one-engine rule, Hamlin and Vickers will start from the rear in the AdvoCare 500.