Strictly driven

The bulk of attention in motorsports has gone to Danica Patrick so far this year. Anytime Patrick runs a race when she does not get lapped, she gets more media attention than the winner of the race. In the latest NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway, Jimmie Johnson won his eighth race at the track and second of the year, while taking the points lead. But Patrick got the majority of the attention after finishing 12th when many believed she would have a hard time even reaching the top 20.

When Patrick claimed the pole at the Daytona 500 earlier this year, eventually finishing seventh in the race, it was understandable that the rookie driver would grab all of the attention. But why reward mediocre performances when there are plenty of other underrated drivers that have a better story to tell?

One of these underrated drivers is AJ Allmendinger. To many NASCAR fans, Allmendinger may seem like a has-been who killed his career in racing after failing a random drug test administrated by NASCAR last year. But also last year Allmendinger, who already had little success in his transition from open-wheel racing to NASCAR, was given a dream opportunity to drive for legendary motorsports car owner Roger Penske. But while his Penske Racing teammate, Brad Keselowski, was paving his way to his first championship, Allmendinger was having a hard time finding his footing with his new team. But he was showing glimpses of potential, like when he achieved his best finish (2nd) at Martinsville Speedway that year.

Once he failed a drug test for Adderall, Allmendinger was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR and fired from his ride with Penske. He claimed that he took the drug unknowingly and was determined to prove he does not use drugs by quickly completing NASCAR’s “Road to Recovery” program. However, it didn’t matter how fast he completed the program, Allmendinger was still left without a ride and many believed he would never find one again. But there was one unlikely hero who came to Allmendinger’s side in his time of need.

The same man who fired Allmendinger that year was looking to put him back behind the wheel of one of his cars. Penske never lost faith in his young driver and having to fire him was only part of company policy. Allmendinger said that Penske would frequently call him to keep in touch and make sure he was doing well. He clearly believed in Allmendinger’s potential and when Penske, who has won the Indianapolis 500 15 times as an owner, thinks a driver has potential, he is probably right.

Although there was no more room back at Penske Racing on the NASCAR side, a seat was made available on the IndyCar side for the 2013 season. Right now it is only a three-race deal, with one of those being the Indianapolis 500, but Penske is interested in fielding him in more races after an impressive run in his first race of the season on Sunday. The original plan was to have Allmendinger run the Indianapolis 500 and one race before that so he can get used to the cars. He used to race in the Champ Car Series open-wheel cars where he won five races before moving to NASCAR, so many from Penske Racing expected Allmendinger to adapt to the open-wheel cars of IndyCar quickly. And he did not disappoint.

During the practices before the main event at the Barber Motorsports Park, Allmendinger was showing speed early with lap times that were not too far off the front-runners. He eventually qualified 10th for the race out of 26 cars. Throughout the beginning of the race, he proved that the speed he was showing in practice was not a fluke. He made his way from 10th to seventh early on and battled the front-runners for the first half of the race. Teammate Will Power, who excels on tracks like Barber Motorsports Park, even had a hard time keeping up with Allmendinger early on. His strong first run would not end the way he planned, however. After having a problem with the car stalling on pit road, Allmendinger was forced to settle with a 19th place finish.

This finish, however, does not reflect the impressive run Allmendinger actually had, which is something many others caught on to, including his teammates and car owner. To try and give Allmendinger more seat time and keep him behind the wheel on the No. 2 IndyCar, Penske decided to add another race to his new driver’s schedule which he will pay for out-of-pocket. Because the original deal covered only two races, IZOD had only signed on to sponsor those original two races, but if IZOD or another company will jump on board to sponsor Allmendinger in more races, Penske stated that he would not hesitate to run him more.

No matter how many races he gets in IndyCar this year, he won’t have to wait long each week to get behind the wheel of a race car, as he has also picked up a part-time ride in NASCAR with Phoenix Racing. They are an underfunded team with fewer than 20 people working in their shop, yet Allmendinger is defying the odds and continues to show the potential Penske sees in him. His finishes have been 11th, 16th and 13th respectively, which may seem mediocre, but with the limited resources Phoenix Racing has, these finishes hold more ground and value than Patrick getting finishes comparable to those with her multimillion dollar funded team. In those races he had beaten the likes of NASCAR champions Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, who drove the Phoenix Racing car last year. So if the media wants to report on mid-ranged finishes, they should focus instead on the drivers that actually work for it and treat that finish as a win because they know they made enough money for their team to go to the next race.

Allmendinger is creating a true comeback story of which he is still on the first chapter. I would expect to see more strong finishes in his NASCAR races and an increased schedule on the IndyCar side. Thanks to Penske’s commitment to help Allmendinger, a talented racecar driver who may otherwise have wasted away will be behind the wheel of a racecar—potentially even the Indianapolis 500-winning car.