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Allmendinger hopes to take 'next step' with Penske

December 21, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Penske Racing never really considered A.J. Allmendinger.

The NASCAR race team had other drivers in mind to replace Kurt Busch in its No. 22 car. That is, until a few days ago when Allmendinger split from his Richard Petty Motorsports organization, and the Penske group moved quickly to add a driver it viewed as having a favorable career progression behind him and promising potential ahead.

"I never expected when we left Homestead, everything that's happened to get to this point would happen. It was a tough decision. "

--A.J. ALLMENDINGER

That quick courtship culminated Wednesday, when Allmendinger was named the new driver of the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, replacing Busch, who left the Penske team by mutual agreement on Dec. 5. It's a huge step up for a driver who enjoyed his best Sprint Cup campaign in this past season's 15th-place points finish, but has never won a race at NASCAR's top level, and will now compete for an elite organization that measures success in race victories and championship bids.

"I know there's a lot of pressure there. I'm not blind to the pressure, with Shell/Pennzoil, and with the organization and what they're used to, having ideas about winning. I know there's a lot of pressure to go out there and perform," said Allmendinger, a 30-year-old native of Los Gatos, Calif.

"But for me, if I didn't feel like I could do that, I'd be wasting everybody's time and not be here. I feel like I'm at that next level to take that step and be a winner and be a championship contender. ... Lot of confidence, but I know the pressure is there. But I'm ready to take it on. This is going to be the best chance I've ever had in the Sprint Cup Series to go out and perform, and I'm ready to do that."

The former open-wheel racer, who won five times on the old Champ Car circuit, struggled through a rough NASCAR indoctrination with a fledgling Red Bull outfit, but seemed to find his stock-car footing with the Petty team. His 10 top-10s this past season were a career-best, and he closed the 2011 campaign with four consecutive finishes of 15th or better. He said he left the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with every intention of being back in the RPM fold the next year.

Watch: Allmendinger recaps his season, talks about Chase for 2012

But Busch's sudden departure from Penske two weeks later tumbled a series of dominoes that altered that plan. One team interested in the former champion was reportedly RPM. "When the rumors all started last week about Kurt, that kind of threw up a red flag in my mind as to what was happening," Allmendinger said. RPM also was unable to secure sponsorship for its No. 43 car for 2012, with primary backer Best Buy departing for Roush Fenway Racing. In a statement released Wednesday, RPM chief executive officer Brian Moffitt said Allmendinger had been released "to pursue other opportunities within the sport."

"It's been a difficult process," said Allmendinger, who joined the organization that would become RPM in late 2008. "I never expected when we left Homestead, everything that's happened to get to this point would happen. It was a tough decision. It wasn't something for me that was easily made. I love my race team, my guys over at Richard Petty Motorsports. I just felt like we'd built such good chemistry over the last four to five months of the season. To get to this point was a tough challenge. But at the same point, looking at an organization and where I'm going and the people that surround it also made the decision a little bit easier."

Meanwhile, over at Penske, president Tim Cindric said the organization was looking at a group of candidates that centered around David Ragan, Brian Vickers, and David Reutimann, all Sprint Cup race winners who don't have rides for next season. Allmendinger's release instantly shifted the team's focus.

"I guess the word 'potential' is what continues to come up, and I think we considered virtually everybody that was out there."

--TIM CINDRIC

"We had to look at -- I guess the word 'potential' is what continues to come up, and I think we considered virtually everybody that was out there," Cindric said. "... And A.J., he was someone we'd talked to over the years. Obviously, he's been in the garage area, and we know him. But he really wasn't someone that we considered until almost really the 11th hour, until there was noise that they may not be able to make things work [at RPM]. When we sat down and looked at the guys who were available and A.J., certainly the on-track performance, when you look at it, there's nobody who has a better progression through his career."

Allmendinger has steadily climbed in the points throughout his five seasons in Sprint Cup, improving from 43rd his rookie campaign to 15th last year. "We considered everybody," Cindric said. "There were a lot of calls and a lot of people who deserved a chance, to put it that way, but we really had to look at who was the right one for the situation."

And to Penske, Allmendinger was the right fit, someone the organization believed could mesh with new No. 22 crew chief Todd Gordon and teammate Brad Keselowski, and had enough upside to make the decision work. Although Penske's announcement of Allmendinger's hiring mentioned only 2012 -- leading to the assumption that the deal is for one year -- Cindric believes the pieces are in place for a longer relationship.

"For us, we want nothing more than to go forward on a log-term basis, and have the two guys we have drive for us for a long time," Cindric said. " ... [Allmendinger's] program is certainly set up for the long term. If we realize our potential, I think he'll be our driver for more than one year."

For Allmendinger, it's all been a blur. He spent Wednesday meeting his new team members and trying to find his way around Penske's massive complex in Mooresville, N.C. He needs to develop a stronger relationship with Keselowski, whom he concedes he doesn't know that well, although the two have always been cordial. He has to get his seats in the No. 22 cars and brainstorm with Gordon, his new crew chief. And soon enough it will be time for testing, and then Speedweeks, and Allmendinger will discover for real if he's ready for this step up in class.

"It's been the pinnacle," he said. "I've always wanted to drive for Mr. Penske. It's something that when the opportunity arose, I jumped right at it. ... The last five years, I feel like I've made good progression throughout each year, and this is hopefully going to allow me to take the next step in my career and really contend for race wins and try to make the Chase. That's the ultimate goal, [to] really contend for a championship. So I'm really looking forward to the opportunity."