Why Would AJ Allmendinger Do That?
For all of those that were foaming at the mouth every time AJ Allmendinger climbed into an IndyCar, their dreams of poaching a NASACAR driver are over. Curiously enough, the driver that was banished from NASCAR and Roger Penske’s Sprint Cup team has signed with JTG Daugherty Racing to drive their No. 47 Sprint Cup entry. Hmmm…
At the risk of sounding like the sour grapes of a guy that was just dumped by the hottest girl in school, I was never that giddy with Allmendinger’s presence in IndyCar.
AJ Allmendinger had an impressive career in Champ Car from 2004 through 2006. He was replaced at RuSport by Christiano da Matta in the middle of the 2006 season. Within a week, he was driving for Gerald Forsythe. He promptly won the next three races, reeling off victories at Portland, Cleveland and Toronto. He went on to win five races in a partial schedule with Forsythe, before bolting for a ride with Red Bull in NASCAR.
The likeable Californian did not have a good career in NASCAR, to put it bluntly. His first season with Red Bull in 2007 saw him finish forty-third in points, failing to qualify in nineteen races. He failed to qualify for the first three races of the 2008 season and was temporarily replaced by Mike Skinner (talk about an insult) for five races, before being brought back. He was released for good with seven races to go.
His best two NASCAR seasons came in 2010 and 2011, while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports – finishing nineteenth and fifteenth respectively. When Kurt Busch had his meltdown with Dr. Jerry Punch and was summarily released by Roger Penske, Allmendinger was tabbed to drive the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil car for Penske. The results were not eye-popping, but he did earn a second-place finish at Martinsville and two ninth-place finishes before his suspension for a failed drug test just prior to the July Daytona race.
Shortly after his suspension, Allmendinger was dropped by Penske Racing in a not-so-surprising move. Yet when Allmendiger completed the substance-abuse program and was re-instated by NASCAR to run the last few races of the season for Phoenix Racing, word started circulating that The Captain was going to run Allmendinger in a part-time ride in his IndyCar program. Talk about landing on your feet.
The rumors turned out to be true. Allmendinger did not run the 2013 season-opener at St. Petersburg, but he was in the third Penske car at Barber and Long Beach. For his first time to run these types of cars since 2006, Allmendinger did OK, but not great. But his input to the team was encouraging and he seemed to get along well with his new part-time teammates, Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Of course, all of this was in preparation for the Indianapolis 500.
At Indianapolis, it was a different story – in practice, qualifying and the race itself. His times were fast all month and he out qualified his experienced teammates. Allmendinger started fifth, while Power was alongside in sixth and Castroneves was directly behind him in eighth. Allmendinger finished seventh, while Helio was just ahead in sixth. Power fell all the way to nineteenth and was the last car running on the lead lap at the end.
But Allmendinger’s seventh place finish doesn’t tell half the story. He led twenty-three laps and at one point seemed to be driving away from the rest of the field. He was in contention to win until his seatbelts came undone in mid-race, resulting in a lengthy pit stop. Finishing seventh after that tells you how superb his drive was that day.
The cheers that ran through the Speedway when Allmendinger led laps, were only surpassed by the ovation that Tony Kanaan received when he eventually took the checkered flag. That’s how popular Allmendinger was with the fans.
The next week was the double-header weekend at Belle Isle. Allmendinger’s weekend could not have gone much worse. Between the two races, Allmendinger failed to complete a single lap. He crashed out on the opening lap in both races. The last image we have of AJ Allmendinger at an IndyCar race is of him sitting quietly and very humbled in the Team Penske pit box. He hasn’t raced since in an IndyCar, not so much for his performance – but due to lack of sponsorship.
In the meantime, Allmendinger was running some races early this season with Phoenix Racing as well as a couple of races for Roger Penske’s Nationwide team, both of which he won.
To me, it was a bit of a shock when it was announced that Allmendinger was confirmed for the full 2014 Sprint Cup Season at JTG Daugherty Racing. Although you admire their spunk, this is not a front-running team in NASCAR. Which leads me to wonder; why would AJ Allmendinger take a full-time ride with a third-tier Sprint Cup team instead of the chance to run in IndyCar with one of the top teams in the history of the sport?
Has he been informed by The Captain that there is no room in the Penske stable for next season? Perhaps he was told that the best he could get next season was about the same that he had this year – the Indianapolis 500 and a handful of races.
Was this all about the money? There is lots of money to be made in NASCAR – currently, much more than in IndyCar. Even with a small team’s budget, it is likely that Allmendinger will make more driving fulltime for JTG Daugherty Racing than in a few races for Roger Penske in IndyCar.
Is it the challenge? Allmendinger won five times in his last season in Champ Car. He proved to everyone that he can drive an open-wheel car. But like so many before and after he made the switch to NASCAR, he has yet to win. Perhaps he wants to be the one to debunk the myth that IndyCar drivers can’t win in stock cars. In the past twenty years, the only driver to win regularly in both is Tony Stewart. Since Allmendinger left Champ Car in 2006, the list of IndyCar drivers unsuccessfully trying their hand in NASCAR has grown longer and longer. Juan Montoya, Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti and Danica Patrick have migrated to NASCAR and been burned. Danica is the only one of that group to not win an open-wheel championship, but none of them tasted much, if any, success in NASCAR. If Allmendinger could become one of the few to win in both, it would help reverse the perception that it’s tougher to drive a stock car than an IndyCar.
The most troubling possibility for an IndyCar fan to process is that maybe he just didn’t like it over here on the IndyCar side. I know my passions are just a little skewed, but if I had the chance to drive a car prepared and crewed by Team Penske at the Indianapolis 500 – I would pass on any other opportunity. To me, the chance at the Borg-Warner trophy would trump anything else. Rick Mears said it best when he said that a part-time ride with Team Penske is better than a full-time ride anywhere else. He said all the right things when he was driving an IndyCar, but apparently it wasn’t that important.
I certainly don’t have any idea what transpired behind closed doors between Roger Penske and AJ Allmendinger since that dreadful weekend in Detroit. Maybe nothing happened and he saw this as a good career move. But from an IndyCar fan’s viewpoint, his signing with JTG Daugherty Racing when he was just a loose seatbelt away from winning the Indianapolis 500 just a little over three months ago seems just a little bit of a head-scratcher.