Commentary

Long road ahead for Allmendinger?

Updated: July 11, 2012, 8:14 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One person came to mind immediately as news surfaced Saturday that AJ Allmendinger had been temporarily suspended and pulled from the Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway because of a failed drug test:

Jeremy Mayfield.

The Mayfield story began on May 9, 2009, at Darlington Raceway when NASCAR announced the driver was suspended for failing a drug test taken a week earlier. It only recently ended with Mayfield stopping his fight to prove the governing body and laboratory erred in determining he tested positive for methamphetamines.

[+] EnlargeMayfield
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesFormer NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield: "I'm labeled now. The damage is done."

In between there were more twists and turns than the old and new "Dallas" television series combined. There were countless court battles between Mayfield and NASCAR, accusations by Mayfield's stepmother that the driver used meth and a counterclaim by Mayfield that his stepmother killed his father.

There was Mayfield being arrested for possession of 1.5 grams of meth and charges that he stole more than $100,000 of equipment.

There was a $1 million settlement for a postal worker against Mayfield because one of his dogs attacked the employee while she was making a delivery and an ensuing bankruptcy filing by Mayfield's wife, Shana. There was the foreclosure on Mayfield's 440-acre North Carolina farm and a public auction by the lending company to sell it for $1.725 million.

And let's not kid ourselves: It's really not over. Mayfield has a court date in September for the criminal charges. If cleared, he told me on Monday, there's a wealthy businessman who would like to give him another chance in a Cup car -- if NASCAR would agree to clear him.

Seriously.

"Whatever else they need me to do, I'll do," Mayfield said of NASCAR. "I'm not going to sit in rehab for 60 days, but I will do any kind of test they want me to do for sure."

Let's hope the Allmendinger situation doesn't turn into this three-year soap opera.

Then again, Mayfield never thought his life would become what it has. He argued three years ago, as he still does today, that his positive test was the result of combining over-the-counter Claritin-D 24-hour tablets for allergies with prescription Adderall for attention deficit.

He believed that as soon as the "B" sample test came back it would confirm his case and he would be reinstated.

Instead, it became a nightmare that his five career wins and two trips to the Chase couldn't overcome.

Mayfield said he believes Allmendinger, who in a Tuesday statement said he never "knowingly" took a banned substance, and who in 2009 had a DWI charge, and who is winless in Cup with no Chase appearances, faces a similar situation.

He believes the odds of Allmendinger's "B" sample proving him innocent are slim to none, just as he thought when his second sample was being tested. Mayfield and his attorneys argued it was unfair that the same lab -- Aegis Sciences Corp. in Nashville, Tenn. -- conducted the original test and the second test, although the courts didn't agree.

"What do you think that will turn out to be?" asked Mayfield, whose attorneys argued many companies outside of NASCAR use a different facility for the second test.

All these things from the Mayfield experience rushed back into my mind when Allmendinger's suspension was announced. They rushed back into the mind of Mayfield, as well.

Regardless of innocence or guilt, Mayfield understands what Allmendinger is feeling today. He knows what Allmendinger's business manager meant when she said the driver was "shell-shocked" by the test results.

"It's really hard to describe," Mayfield said. "It's just not a good feeling. You feel like your world is turned upside down. You just want to wake up and hope it's a nightmare.

"He's got a long, long road ahead of him no matter what. Regardless of what happens with the 'B' test and whatever, he's got a long road ahead of him."

But Mayfield's most haunting words about what this could mean for Allmendinger came three years ago.

"I'm labeled now," he said. "The damage is done."

Former driver Shane Hmiel, who was suspended from NASCAR in 2003 for testing positive for marijuana, suspended again in 2005 for testing positive for cocaine and then suspended for life in 2006 after another positive test, agreed.

Hmiel told me it was tough enough 10 years ago trying to get reinstated, to get an owner or sponsor willing to take a chance on him. He can only imagine it's worse today with the stricter substance abuse guidelines since 2009, not to mention teams and sponsors more selective than ever because of a struggling economy.

"The best thing that can happen is the 'B' test will come back negative," Hmiel said. "That's what I want to happen."

In almost the same breath he admitted it was a long shot, understanding NASCAR wouldn't have suspended Allmendinger without what it believed to be iron-clad evidence.

"They're really serious about drivers having any kind of craziness in the brain, which I'm totally 100 percent behind," Hmiel said of NASCAR. "From what I've seen [of Allmendinger's situation], yes, it's going to be a while before he can come back."

Unlike Mayfield, Hmiel admitted he did drugs, although he never considered himself a junkie. He was so scared from the first positive test that he swears drugs weren't a part of his life until an unfortunate trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for bike week.

"Beautiful women naked, doing drugs off each other," Hmiel said. "I got caught up in it."

Also unlike Mayfield, Hmiel has no aspirations of driving again at any level. Those ended when he suffered near-fatal spinal injuries in 2010 when his USAC Silver Crown car hit a retaining wall so hard the roll cage collapsed.

Hmiel spends much of his days like Monday, when I found him pedaling a stationary bike with 18 pads attached to his body to shock nerves.

"I'm on my fourth mile in 28 minutes," Hmiel said. "I'm going 33 mph and that's all because of the electrocutions shooting through my body and making my legs move. Pretty bitching."

There's nothing easy about NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, which has gotten much tougher since Hmiel first went through it. It takes at least five months to complete and involves heavy therapy and counseling, not to mention extensive drug testing.

It was so intense that Hmiel chose not to enter after the second positive test, saying he wasn't mentally ready. Mayfield never applied for entry, the first step he would have to take before NASCAR would consider licensing him to drive again in its top three series.

In some cases the program requires entering a rehab clinic.

"I could never see myself going to a rehab clinic," Mayfield said. "There comes a point where you have to be some type of man and say, 'You know what? I'll do a lot of things. But I'm not going to sit here and take the fall for something I didn't do.'"

Denial. That's another thing that came rushing back when the news of Allmendinger's suspension leaked out. Mayfield denied, denied and denied.

He still denies.

Allmendinger, in the only statement he's made, also denied. His business manager released a statement on Wednesday saying the positive test came from a stimulant, adding they were in the process of gathering medicines and supplements to see if the positive test came from an over-the-counter product.

Regardless of innocence or guilt, denial is a natural response by athletes, as we've seen with other drug-related incidents.

"Obviously, I would never do anything to jeopardize my opportunity here at Penske Racing or to my fellow drivers," Allmendinger said in a release. "I am very conscious about my training and health and would never knowingly take a prohibited drug."

That's the way Mayfield's sad saga began. Let's hope this doesn't turn into another.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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