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Allmendinger making the most of second chance

June 24, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

Allmendinger making the most of second chance
Back in No. 22 Penske Racing Ford, 'Dinger praises Roger Penske for keeping faith in him

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- In the days following his suspension for testing positive for a banned substance in 2012, AJ Allmendinger wondered if his NASCAR career was over.

He had a dream ride in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the No. 22 with Penske Racing. He had a near miss on the first NASCAR win of his career. He had the trust and respect of team owner Roger Penske and teammate Brad Keselowski.

But the ‘Dinger is back, as evidenced by his driving display in Saturday’s Johnsonville Sausage 200 presented by Menards that netted the 31-year-old the first NASCAR win of his career.

On the winding 4.048-mile road course at Road America, Allmendinger navigated a treacherous stretch of racing and held off a talented field during two green-white-checkered finishes.

And he did it while driving the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford.

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“Even after what happened last year, Roger Penske didn’t give up on me,” Allmendinger said during a post-race press conference that teetered between emotional and hilarious. “He just kept making sure I was OK. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it if he wrote me off. But he didn’t.”

The words tumbled out as Allmendinger spoke, as if they’ve been weighing on his mind since … well, since last year. He spoke loudly and confidently during the serious stuff, giving his words weight. He cracked jokes at other times, reminding crew chief Jeremy Bullins who won their golf round the day before (hint: It was Allmendinger).

He sounded like a man who had been given a second chance.

“I want to say that Roger never looked down on me, or put me aside or treated me differently,” Allmendinger said. “He kept checking on me, kept checking on me. When I came back, I felt like they wanted me back.”

The moment wasn’t lost on the drivers who finished behind Allmendinger, either. Both Justin Allgaier (second) and Parker Kligerman (third) are former Penske Racing drivers.

They understand Penske the man and Penske the organization.

“I have more respect for Roger Penske than most people in the garage,” Allgaier said. “I’d say if he’s taking AJ back in and putting him back in his races, then he’s done every step that Roger feels is necessary. And I have respect for that.”

And clearly, Allmendinger’s driving ability hasn’t slipped. That much was obvious Friday when he won the first Coors Light Pole in his NASCAR career.

All doubts were officially erased during the race itself, scheduled for 50 laps but going 55. Allmendinger slipped off the course early, spraying up grass and losing his lead, but that was his only mistake of the day.

He drove door-to-door hard with road-course experts Owen Kelly (fourth-place finish) and Billy Johnson (15th), not budging when they -- or others -- barreled down on his fender.

He chased down leader Allgaier late and made the pass for first place on Lap 44, and never relinquished the lead as the race extended past the scheduled distance and fuel concerns began to creep in.

“That was a heckuva move,” crew chief Bullins said. “I told him before the race that we were going to win, but it’s going to take all day to do it. He had to be patient, and he did that.”

Patience was simply one of the tools Allmendinger displayed. There were others.

Skill. Poise. Precision. Even perfection (his Driver Rating was 150.0).

Enough to make one wonder if ‘Dinger’s day is just the start of something special. A rebirth.

“To come back, once you’ve lost it all, a lot of times you come back and you’re better at what you do,” Kligerman said. “I think we’re seeing that with AJ. He’s showing what he really has talent-wise, and we’re better for it.”

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Road America