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INDIANAPOLIS -- IndyCar fans called him "AJ All-defector" when he turned his back on open-wheel racing more than six years ago.
Now, after a challenging stint in stock cars and a highly publicized drug test failure, AJ Allmendinger is returning to his roots, thanks to a remarkable second chance offered by legendary team owner Roger Penske. Allmendinger has been tapped to pilot Penske's No. 2 IZOD-sponsored car in the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 and at least one other race in 2013, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
He made his public debut as a Penske IndyCar driver at a news conference on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and he will be in the car next week at the IZOD IndyCar Series' open test at Barber, where he will compete on April 7.
|AJ Allmendinger had a great run with Indeck Forsythe Championship Racing in the Champ Car World Series before making the jump to NASCAR.|
"I'm really looking forward to getting back to my roots and racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series," Allmendinger said. "I have to thank Roger, Tim Cindric and everyone at Team Penske for this opportunity.
"I think it's every driver's dream to race for Team Penske at the Indy 500, and that experience is going to be incredible. I also have to thank IZOD for their support and for giving me a chance to show what I can do. I definitely intend to make the most of it."
Nine months ago, the prospect of Allmendinger stepping back into any Penske car seemed unfathomable. Penske is absolutely obsessed with a clean, noncontroversial image, but apparently he was comfortable with Allmendinger's explanation as to why he failed a random drug test (he claimed to have taken a single dose of Adderall after being told it was an energy stimulant) and the driver's rapid completion of NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" rehabilitation program.
Allmendinger was thrown in at the deep end of the NASCAR pool in 2007 when the startup Red Bull team enticed him away from Indy car racing after his most successful open-wheel campaign to date -- five wins and third place in the 2006 Champ Car World Series, driving for Forsythe Racing.
Of course, that was at the height of the open-wheel war between CART/Champ Car and IRL/IndyCar, so Allmendinger was one of many top-line open-wheel drivers whose desire to race in the Indianapolis 500 was compromised.
"It's the second coming of a dream come true in a lot of different ways," Allmendinger said. "When I was 10, 11, 12 years old, in the heyday of CART, I dreamed of the Indy 500. The split took away some of the prestige of the Indy 500 because the best of the best weren't there for a time. I lost the concept of what Indy was until I got here in a stock car.
"If I didn't think I could win the race, I wouldn't be wasting these guys' time and money."
It was the way Allmendinger left Indy cars that upset Forsythe and the fan base. Allmendinger refused to admit he was considering a switch to NASCAR, and, when he made the announcement in October 2006, Gerald Forsythe fired him immediately, not waiting for the end of the season.
With little or no stock car racing experience, Allmendinger struggled at the Cup level, failing to qualify for more than half the races in his rookie season. When Red Bull folded the NASCAR operation, Allmendinger landed with Richard Petty Motorsports, where he finished a career-best 15th in the Sprint Cup standings in 2009.
|AJ Allmendinger lost his job with Penske Racing's Sprint Cup Series team last season after a failed drug test.|
A move to Penske Racing for 2012 looked as if it would be a springboard for Allmendinger's stock car career, especially when he scored a second-place finish at Martinsville in April. But the driver's world came crashing down in July when he failed that drug test.
Penske chose Sam Hornish Jr. to replace Allmendinger in his No. 22 NASCAR Sprint Cup entry for the second half of the 2012 season before hiring Joey Logano to take over that ride on a permanent basis in 2013. But for whatever reason, Penske maintained contact with Allmendinger, providing him encouragement as he took steps to clean up his image.
"It's exciting to welcome AJ back to Penske Racing," Penske said. "He obviously went through a tough time last year, but he has done everything he needed to in order to get back to racing at the top level of the sport.
"We have always believed in AJ and his ability, and he deserves this opportunity," Penske added. "We think he will be a strong competitor this season in the IZOD IndyCar Series for Team Penske, and we look forward to racing with him in the IZOD car at Barber and at the Indianapolis 500."
Cindric, who, as president of Penske Racing maintains day-to-day management of Penske's NASCAR and IndyCar teams, looks forward to seeing what Allmendinger can do in what might be a more natural habitat for him.
"We were pretty close to AJ's situation the whole time," he said. "You take calculated risks every day, and for us, this isn't a risk. We think there's more good that can come out of this than bad.
"Roger has always been a loyal guy," he added. "There are a lot of stories like this that people don't know about."
Allmendinger tested a Dallara-Chevrolet Indy car for Penske at Sebring International Raceway on Feb. 19 and admitted it will be a challenge to readapt to the quicker reactions of an open-wheel car after wrestling 3,600-pound stock cars for the past six-plus years.
Penske has scheduled Allmendinger to run the two races for which he will get the most practice and testing time, giving him the greatest chance for success in his Indy car audition.
"I was pretty whipped after running at Sebring, but, in the second half of the day, I was starting to catch up to the car," Allmendinger said. "I've been working out hard so I can get stronger and attack. But nothing simulates actually being in the car."
People who criticize the IndyCar Series for a lack of American drivers will have a new native to cheer for at Indianapolis this year. AJ Allmendinger is hoping he can make the most of his opportunity because career opportunities -- especially with Roger Penske -- don't often come along twice.