DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Given a choice, AJ Allmendinger would rather be at Daytona International Speedway getting ready for one of the 150-mile qualifying races today and the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
Instead, he’s 138 miles away at Sebring International Raceway, shaking down one of Roger Penske’s IndyCar Series cars.
The distance between tracks isn’t Allmendinger’s only obstacle to making a full-time return to NASCAR. No matter how much time passes or how many miles are raced, he can’t run away from a suspension for testing positive last year for amphetamines.
Unlike baseball and football where athletes generally are welcomed back – sometimes after being caught two or three times – NASCAR hasn’t been as forgiving. Drivers are independent contractors who depend largely on the financial support of corporate sponsors, and the last thing a Fortune 500 company wants is to be tied to somebody with a history of drug or alcohol problems.
Drivers, crew and even media members who fail NASCAR’s drug test generally are suspended and ordered to complete a rehabilitation program. Many get that help, only to find the sport has left them in the dust.
Allmendinger was the 10th driver to be caught. Only four have been reinstated. And of that group, none have a full-time job – or any prospects of substantial work – in the sport.
While no promises have been made, Allmendinger hopes the test session will give him the inside track to be rehired by Penske.
“Well, the sky’s the limit,” Allmendinger told SPEED. “You never know with Roger Penske. But just really focused on this test, see how it goes, see kind of where it could lead to. I hope to be able to make it through a race and then go run the Indy 500. I know that really all starts with this test and kind of seeing how that goes and seeing how things progress from there.”
Allmendinger drove a prototype in the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the Grand-Am Road Racing Series. Now he’s doing the IndyCar test. He’s also been mentioned as a possible part-time driver in James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series. Finch already has proven he’s willing to go against the grain by hiring Kurt Busch a year ago.
Getting a sponsor, however, always will be the biggest obstacle, and it has forced Allmendinger to expand his options.
“We know how this world works. It’s crazy,” he said. “I definitely want to be back in the Cup Series because I have got a lot of unfinished business. It’s not the way I want to go out like that. I’m open to all options – sports car racing, IndyCar racing, Cup, Nationwide, trucks, whatever.
“You reflect on it every day. You go through the process of life. And for me, all the good decisions and all the bad decisions I’ve made. It was the toughest time of my life that I have ever had, but there is a lot worse happening in this world.”
But not at 200 mph.