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Fourteen months ago, most people probably thought that AJ Allmendinger would win a Verizon IndyCar Series race before he would claim a victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
It's fair to say that 2013 was a transitional year for the 32-year-old California native, who ended the 2012 season on the sidelines after being suspended by NASCAR for failing a random drug test.
Allmendinger patched together a 2013 program of Grand-Am sports cars and occasional NASCAR starts for Phoenix Racing, but the big break came from Roger Penske, for whom Allmendinger was running in the Sprint Cup Series when he got suspended.
|It was hugs all around for Chaser AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen International on Sunday.|
Penske ran Allmendinger in five IndyCar Series races, and the driver named after A.J. Foyt was on the way to stealing an improbable victory at the Indianapolis 500 until his seat belts somehow came unbuckled.
That seventh-place finish at Indy was the high point of Allmendinger's brief taste of modern Indy cars, and while it looked like moving back to the open-wheelers he raced up through 2006 before switching to stock cars might be a smart career move, he never seriously considered going back. He kept his focus on NASCAR, and just a few days later, Penske tabbed Allmendinger to compete in a pair of Nationwide Series road races, at Road America in June and Mid-Ohio in August.
Allmendinger won both, and he was rewarded later in the summer of 2013 when he was invited to join JTG Daugherty Racing's Sprint Cup team on a full-time basis. Allmendinger's victory at Watkins Glen International on Sunday in the Cheez-It 355 was the first in the Cup series for himself, as well as for JTG Daugherty owners Tad and Jodi Geschickter and Brad Daugherty.
That's why Allmendinger was so emotional when Penske, along with JTG Daugherty technical alliance leader Richard Childress, joined family and team members to congratulate him in Victory Lane at Watkins Glen after his memorable breakthrough.
"I consider this race team my family, and to be able to share this with my parents is so special," Allmendinger said. "They mortgaged their home for my racing career three times. All I wanted to do was to pay them back and pay off their house. Finally, I was able to do that a few weeks ago. To share it with everybody as a whole as a family, that to me is what's most important.
"It helped having Roger Penske and the Penske Racing guys and Richard Childress show up and congratulate me, too," he added. "That meant the world to me because it means that to me, at least, that I'm still a part of their family, too, and they care about me. That was really cool. Everything that just happened in Victory Lane was something that I'll never forget."
Brad Keselowski, who was Allmendinger's Penske NASCAR teammate in 2012 prior to the suspension, said he was pleased to see his friend break through.
"Seeing anyone get their first one is incredibly special ... you only get one of those, right?" Keselowski said. "But to go with that, AJ and some of the adversity he's had to fight through to get there, I think makes it even more special. He's a guy who entered the garage in 2007 with really a hand tied behind his back, maybe two, and he's clawed his way to where he's at now to be able to get that first win. That's something I think anyone can respect, and certainly I do as well."
Allmendinger's racing career could have ended in ignominy after his July 2012 suspension. But he quickly completed NASCAR's Road to Recovery counseling program, and thanks to faithful team owners including Penske, James Finch, Mike Shank and the Geschickters, he kept it all going.
Tabbed as a favorite going into Watkins Glen because of his road-racing background, Allmendinger raced Marcos Ambrose hard but clean with a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth on the line for both drivers.
Allmendinger held off Ambrose through a series of late-race restarts to emerge victorious. From a career crossroads, he reached Victory Lane in just over a year.
"I wouldn't say it was a career crossroads," Allmendinger said. "A crossroads was when I was sitting there suspended, going 'Is this ever going to happen again?' But I went from in January  thinking that the Rolex 24 Hour might be my only race and it turned into a season where I was running everything. It was really cool.
"I had always had people helping me, but it was kind of a blessing in disguise because I had to do it on my own," he said. "It made me meet people I hadn't expected to meet before, like Tad Geschickter. In the past, we might have met, and I might have had my manager or whoever go and talk to them. Now I had to go talk to people and I felt like I built great relationships with people just because I had to. So it was a lot of fun and there was no crossroads ever. There was no pressure. I just went where my heart led me."
|AJ Allmendinger, right, held off a furious challenge by Marcos Ambrose to win Sunday at The Glen.|
The Geschickters, along with Daugherty, had won before at Watkins Glen in the Nationwide Series -- ironically, with Ambrose as the driver. But Sunday's victory in NASCAR's top series was special for the underdog team.
"When you're a smaller race team and you haven't had the success, they discard you," Daugherty said. "They say, 'Yeah, you're just dreaming.' I've been saying all along I thought we were a top‑20 race team, and we haven't been able to prove it. We felt when we went to Sonoma this year that we were going to win that race, and we did everything that was right and ended up having a bad day.
"But what we saw today -- we didn't back into it, it wasn't a rain delay, it wasn't a caution -- he got up on the wheel and beat a guy [Ambrose] who I think is possibly the best road racer on the planet.
"This is a pinnacle moment for our race team ... we're little-bitty guys, man, and we got the big guys today."
Ever since NASCAR announced the revised "win and you're in" Chase format this year, there was a lot of talk about a wild-card element from the road races and restrictor-plate races on the Sprint Cup schedule. With Aric Almirola winning at Talladega and the road course-trained Allmendinger triumphing at Watkins Glen, those smaller teams now have a chance to pull an even bigger upset during the final 10 races of the season.
"This doesn't automatically make us a championship contender," Allmendinger said. "We're still a small team; we're still building. To get that exposure by saying we're a Chase team is big for us because of our sponsors. It gives them more exposure and that's what it's all about.
"At the same point, you never know. We may go and shock the world and have a shot when it comes down to Homestead-Miami Speedway. You never know."