After unsure season, Allmendinger hopes for home team
August 16, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
Will a successful year among different teams earn him a place as championship contender in 2014?
LEXINGTON, Ohio -- The patchwork crazy quilt-of-a-season for AJ Allmendinger has afforded him the opportunity to drive a wide variety of cars on numerous race tracks.
Twelve NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts. A win in his first NASCAR Nationwide Series effort. Five IndyCar races, including a stirring drive in the Indianapolis 500. Two GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series starts, including a podium finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
Not bad for someone who didn’t have anything firm lined up before the season. As a result, his phone is ringing, Allmendinger says, and for all the right reasons.
“As I kind of joke around with everybody, I say that people are still calling me and it’s not creditors wanting money, so it’s been a great year so far with just everything I’ve got to experience.”
Allmendinger will attempt to make it 2-for-2 this season in Nationwide competition Saturday, when he wheels the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 (Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He’s one of just three drivers with experience on the 2.4-mile road course, finishing third here in a Barber Pro Series race in 2002.
“I remember what the race track looked like,” Allmendinger said Friday before two more rounds of practice. “I just didn’t remember any of the surroundings driving in, so I was lost trying to get in here yesterday.”
Allmendinger, 31, has found his way in a figurative sense as well this season, even though his impressive performances have forced him to be somewhat nomadic. Just 11 months removed from his reinstatement to the sport after a failed drug test in June 2012, Allmendinger has created opportunities for himself where, before, there were none.
“I feel like there’s potential for me next year for me to have something full time, but as of right now, it’s kind of like my life. I live it one day at a time,” he said. “When I get the opportunity, I try to make sure that I’m ready and do everything I can do to get the fullest and most out of that opportunity. If I can keep doing that this year, something will come aboard.
“Kind of when everything gets torn down from you and all the walls get torn down, you’ve got nothing except yourself. In a way, it’s great because I’ve got nothing to hide. I can joke around about the past. I can be who I am, and if people like that or they don’t, then it is what it is. It’s been good. I feel good about next year, but I don’t have anything solid yet. But I feel like I didn’t expect anything this year, and things keep happening.”
Allmendinger never doubted his own ability. The only difference is that now he has a few more believers in his corner, including car owners that he previously had no interactions with. After solid runs in the under-funded James Finch-owned Phoenix Racing No. 51, Allmendinger was recruited by JTG-Daugherty Racing in June to share driving duties with primary driver Bobby Labonte and offer advice on how to improve the No. 47 Toyota’s program.
Allmendinger has competed with JTG-Daugherty in three races (Michigan, Kentucky and Watkins Glen) already this season, and said he has three more (Atlanta, Kansas and Homestead-Miami) on his schedule.
“They’ve been a really good group to work with. It’s a good little team, and I feel like all I’ve done is just try to come in and give my best feedback of what I think,” Allmendinger said. “Maybe it’s the same as Bobby Labonte; maybe it’s different. I’m not saying that it’s better or worse. Hopefully they’ve enjoyed it and are getting something from it. I’m just trying to go out there and be at my best. We’ve got three more and hopefully we can just get better.”
Allmendinger, freewheeling in conversation but intense behind the wheel, remains his own biggest critic. He said he’s learned over the last year not to worry about what others think, except for those people he holds close. Among those is Roger Penske, who has given him a second chance with Nationwide and IndyCar opportunities. Allmendinger rewarded the legendary team owner earlier this season, scoring his first Nationwide Series win at Road America driving a Penske car.
While there’s a certain thrill in being involved in so many forms of motorsports, Allmendinger would rather have a full-time racing job in 2014, regardless of series. The motivation has less to do with job security, he says, and more to do with competing for a championship.
“There’s no such thing as contracts in this sport,” Allemdinger said with an impish grin. “You’ve got to perform every week and if you’re not, you can easily be fired. The contract has nothing to do with it. It’s nice to have a home and this year’s been a lot of fun, but it’s to the point now that dragging my bag out of each hauler, taking it home and washing my clothes, taking my racing stuff out of it and throwing it back in and taking it to the next hauler, the next team, it’s a little difficult now. It’s tough every weekend, so of course I’d like to find a permanent home.
“It’s more about having a full-time ride in something that I have the opportunity to win in every weekend, have the most fun doing, enjoying the team that I’m on, and everything that kind of goes along with it. So there’s not one series that I have to be in to be happy. I think it’s just the right situation.”