Popular racer tries to put 2012 season, suspension behind him
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- AJ Allmendinger went to bed at 9:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
“I didn’t want to spend any more time in 2012; I was done with it; I didn’t want to live any more of it,” Allmendinger said Friday from Daytona International Speedway, where he fast-forwarded to 2013 as the top driver in the opening day of a three-day test session for the Jan. 26-27 Rolex 24 sports car endurance.
Already it feels like a better year, a fresh start for the popular driver, whom NASCAR suspended July 7 for failing a drug test and reinstated in September after he successfully completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program.
As was the case on New Year’s Eve, Allmendinger, 32, isn’t dwelling on the past, but looking ahead -- ready to enjoy the greater peace and broader perspective he has found in going through his public struggles. He’s convinced he has come out on the right side of a life-changing situation.
"I have a lot of unfinished business (in Cup). That’s not the way I want to go out."
After helping the Michael Shank Racing team to a dramatic underdog victory over the big-budget teams in last year’s Rolex 24, Allmendinger was on top of the world.
No sooner had he gotten his shiny new Rolex sized in Daytona Beach then he was back to Charlotte to prepare for the biggest opportunity of his life: a full-time job with the legendary Penske Racing Sprint Cup Series team.
Losing all that 17 races into the season because of a poor decision -- he says he mistakenly took a prescription Adderall pill -- haunts him.
“But I’m a lot better person sitting here right now than I was when we had the press conference and I had just won this (Rolex 24) race last year,” Allmendinger said. “I’ve learned from everything.
“It was the highest moment of my life when I drove in here (last February), and it was also the lowest moment of my life, because all the hell in my life started in the July Cup race,” he explained. ... “I reflect on it every day and you go through the process of life.”
Although Shank never hesitated to put him behind the wheel to defend the team’s title -- “it was a no-brainer,” Shank says -- Allmendinger doesn’t have a job beyond this month’s Rolex 24.
He has found the harsh reality difficult in recent weeks, dealing with an empty schedule when in recent memory he has usually spent this time steeped in team, press and fan commitments in preparation for the upcoming season.
Instead of seat fittings at the race shop, test sessions and NASCAR Media Day, his days are filled with golf, workouts at the gym and he jokes, “working at my friend’s sandwich shop in case I need another job.”
“I’m not going to lie and say I wake up every day joyous and happy,” Allmendinger said. “Some days I have to find self-worth in what’s going on since I’ve been so used to -- especially at this point -- being at a race shop getting ready to go testing, doing this race, then jumping in a (Cup car).”
Allmendinger says he’s open to any form of racing, from IndyCars -- he won five races in the 2006 Champ Car Series -- to sports cars to NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series.
But his heart remains attached to another competitive shot in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, where he is confident his immense desire will match his considerable talent.
Allmendinger is realistic that the bigger teams have already firmed up their driver lineups, but he says the small, independent Phoenix Racing team remains a possibility. He ran four races for them last fall and remains grateful for their willingness to give him a shot then -- and perhaps in the future.
“We stayed in contact and I appreciated what they did for me,” he said. ... “I have a lot of unfinished business (in Cup). That’s not the way I want to go out.
“All the things I’ve been through, I’ve gotten better from. I’m fortunate to have the chance to be back here. The good thing is I’m here, the race car’s fast and we have a chance to win this thing.”
And he’s not looking back.