Commentary

No give-up in Vickers, Allmendinger

Updated: August 9, 2012, 3:27 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

"I'm very sad not to be in the race car. I want nothing more than to be back in the race car. I'm going to make the most of this. I'm gonna take every opportunity to be positive through this, to deal with it, to learn more, to be better when I get back in the race car."

If asked who in NASCAR made this comment you'd probably say it was suspended Sprint Cup driver AJ Allmendinger.

You'd probably picture Allmendinger, who lost his No. 22 ride at Penske Racing after testing positive for amphetamines, sitting alone at home trying to figure out his future.

You'd probably imagine him going through therapy dealing with the disappointment of having his dream dashed.

You'd be wrong.

[+] EnlargeBrian Vickers
Andrew Weber/US PresswireTeam owner Michael Waltrip congratulates Brian Vickers after his fifth-place run at Bristol Motor Speedway in March.

This actually was a quote from Brian Vickers in May 2010 after learning he'd be out for the remainder of the season while undergoing treatment for blood clots.

But in many ways Allmendinger and Vickers are connected. They both are young drivers who have gone through traumatic experiences that made them realize just how much they love the sport they at times took for granted.

They both are edgy, high-energy guys who have lost rides with top teams for reasons other than their driving ability.

They both are seeking a second chance.

We love comeback stories in sports, and there are countless examples of them. There's Josh Hamilton, who went from rehabilitation for violating baseball's drug policies more than once to the 2010 American League MVP. There's Michael Vick, who went from prison for violating federal dogfighting charges to a Pro Bowl player.

There's Kurt Warner, who went from stocking shelves in a grocery store and playing in the Arena Football League to Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL MVP.

Maybe one day Allmendinger or Vickers or both will be great comeback stories in NASCAR.

Vickers, 28, already is on the comeback trail. Two years after surviving the blood clots, a year after losing his ride at Red Bull Racing because the organization shut down, he is proving he hasn't forgotten how to drive.

In four races for Mark Martin in the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, Vickers has a pair of top-5s and an average finish of 10.5. He's done this at tracks -- Martinsville and Bristol in particular -- that weren't his strength.

He'll be out to prove himself again on Sunday at Watkins Glen International.

Yet Vickers' phone has remained relatively quiet, devoid of calls from perspective owners. He's barely gotten a sniff from Penske Racing as it looks to replace Allmendinger in 2013.

"It's really surprising, almost borderline tragic that people aren't talking to Brian," MWR general manager Ty Norris said. "He's won races, he's won poles and won a [Nationwide] championship and he's still not 30 years old yet. Anyone that has an issue with his past as far as health and stuff is just spot-off."

Vickers' health isn't an issue, so maybe it's the stigma that came with being associated with Red Bull. Maybe sponsors are wary the edginess associated with the energy drink won't fly with their more conservative approach.

Vickers has had to sort of reinvent himself even though he doesn't believe he needs reinventing.

"There are sponsors and brands and images in our sport that everyone thinks [the drivers] are ultraconservative when they're nowhere near that," Vickers said. "Jimmie Johnson is a good example of that. Everyone says that he's so mellow. The reality is he's anything but mellow.

"Almost all of the fun things I've done in my life, Jimmie has been sitting right beside me."

MWR and sponsor Aaron's Inc. has given Vickers a second chance, but not the full-time one he deserves based on performance.

"The core group Michael has built at MWR has slowly created a new reputation for me," Vickers said of team owner Michael Waltrip.

Toss that in with performance so far and you'd think teams and sponsors would be banging on the door.

"We'd love to have him run non-Mark Martin races next year," said Norris, who doesn't have room for another full-time driver. "However, he deserves to be a full-time Cup driver."

Imagine the struggles Vickers is having to land a good full-time ride. Now imagine being Allmendinger.

The road will be much tougher for the 30-year-old who claims he tested positive for Adderall, who insists he took only one pill given to him by the friend of a friend that he thought was for energy the Wednesday before the June Kentucky race.

First, perspective team owners and sponsors will have to determine if Allmendinger is telling the truth about this being an isolated incident. Allmendinger understands that, and seems quite sincere in defending himself.

[+] EnlargeAJ Allmendinger
Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCARAJ Allmendinger says he hopes to complete NASCAR's Road to Recovery program by as early as September.

"To be honest, I should have questioned it," he said of taking a pill without knowing its contents. "It was just a bad judgment, man. It was something I wish I could go back and fix and redo all over again.

"People are going to write it was stupid on my part, and I agree with them. But at the end of the day, I've told the truth and can sleep at night. That's all I can do."

Owners and sponsors now must decide if they want the stigma of being associated with a driver who not only violated the substance abuse policy, but had a DWI in 2009 and never has won a race.

The difference between NASCAR and other sports is sponsors and team owners aren't quite so forgiving. Flunk a drug test in the NFL and you're gone for a few games and then welcomed back with open arms, particularly if you're a top player.

Do that in NASCAR and you're branded, particularly because of the danger factor. Fall off the wagon running off tackle and no one gets hurt. Fall off the wagon in a stock car going 200 mph and somebody could get killed.

It's harsh, but true.

"Hopefully, somebody gives me that chance," Allmendinger said. "I can only do what I want to do, and that's work hard and get back as quick as I can."

Allmendinger took the right step by enrolling in NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and not fighting this out in court. He did this even though he doesn't consider himself an addict.

"It's what we have to do," he said of the reinstatement process. "It's what I have to do. I want to get back in the sport. On top of it, there's stuff I can learn from it. It's tailored to who I am and what I need.

"I'm not sitting there going, 'Gosh, this is dumb and I don't need any of this.' I'm learning from it. I'm learning how to get through stress and about substance abuse and why people put themselves in this position. It's not for nothing."

Allmendinger admits he had issues. He just believes they are related to stress and the need to succeed, not drugs.

"I wasn't having a lot of fun," he said. "I had to figure out if I really did love racing. When it's finally ripped away from you, I learned that I do love racing.

"But there's more to life than this. If you're not a happy person in general, you're never going to be happy no matter what. Those are things I'm working on, on a daily basis. I feel like this isn't the last chapter of racing."

That easily could have been Vickers in 2010 after he got a second lease on life.

Vickers wants a second chance.

So does Allmendinger.

One could argue Vickers already has earned the right to have one. One could argue that for NASCAR's recovery program to truly work -- to prove that a violator can be rehabilitated -- Allmendinger has to get one.

It happens all the time in other sports. It happens seldom in NASCAR. Blow a great opportunity and the odds are you won't get another great one.

"There's always hope," Allmendinger said. "If there wasn't hope I wouldn't be doing it."

You can imagine Vickers saying the same thing.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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