What is Next for AJ Allmendinger?

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by Ryan Isley

How long does it take to change the career of a NASCAR driver?

For AJ Allmendinger, it just might be eight weeks. That is the amount of time that it took Allmendinger to finish NASCAR’s Road to Recovery Program after being suspended for failing a drug test and violating the sport’s substance-abuse policy. Allmendinger was reinstated by NASCAR this past Tuesday, but does not have a ride for the remainder of the season.

Now the question for Allmendinger is what he will do in 2013.

In the time that Allmendinger was away, he was released from his contract at Penske Racing where he had driven the No.22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge for the first 19 races of the season. When he was suspended, the 30-year-old was running just 24th in points and one top-5 and three top-10 finishes.

With Allmendinger no longer in the car, Penske turned to Sam Hornish, Jr. to finish out the season. After a slow start in the No.22, Hornish, Jr. has driven the Dodge to five top-12 finishes in the last six races including three straight 11th-place finishes.

With Hornish, Jr. not under contract to run the No.22 for 2013, Penske Racing agreed to terms with Joey Logano to take the ride next season as Logano’s ride at Joe Gibbs Racing will be taken by Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is leaving his longtime ride in the No.17 for Roush Fenway Racing to make the move, but that car has already been filled for next season as well with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. moving up from the Nationwide Series in 2013.

If Allmendinger is looking to drive in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013, he might have to go the route that Kurt Busch did this season by driving for a single car team such as Phoenix Racing. Another option for Allmendinger just may be to take a ride in the Nationwide Series or the Camping World Truck Series. While Allmendinger has three starts in trucks, he has no experience in Nationwide and would have to put ego aside to take the step backwards.

Another – and possibly – more interesting avenue for Allmendinger would be to leave NASCAR and return to open-wheel racing by joining a team in IndyCar.

Before jumping to the ranks of stock car racing in 2006, Allmendinger had shown promise in the Champ Car Series, winning the championship in the Barber Dodge Pro Series in 2002 and the Champ Car Atlantic Championship in 2003.

In 2004, Allmendinger finished in the top-6 in nine of the 16 races in his first season in the Champ Car World Series and won rookie of the year with a series finish of sixth in points. Allmendinger showed that his first season wasn’t a fluke by finishing fifth in points in 2005 and then third in points in 2006 despite splitting time between two teams that season.

After running the first four races of 2006 for RuSport Racing – the team he had been with since joining Champ Car – Allmendinger was replaced by the team despite a third and fourth place finish in his last two races. Allmendinger was then hired by Forsythe Championship Racing and won the next three races and five of the next nine races. It was that success that led to him leaving open-wheel racing to try his hand in NASCAR.

Ironically, the team owner that fired him in NASCAR – Roger Penske – just might be the guy to give Allmendinger another shot, this time with his IndyCar program. Penske told the Associated Press that Allmendinger would be an option for teams not only in one of the three NASCAR series, but also in an IndyCar team because of his success in Champ Car.

Sometimes to take a step forward, you have to take two steps back. Those two steps back for Allmendinger just might be a return to his roots. And if he takes a chance with Penske in IndyCar, who is to say that the owner won’t keep his options open to move Allmendinger back to NASCAR when he has an opening?

It seems that the only thing surrounding Allmendinger right now are questions. It is up to him to provide the answers.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryan@morethanafan.net