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Allmendinger’s Past Overtaken By His Present

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 11 2014

A.J. Almendinger has overcome a hefty share of challenges to earn his Chase berth. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – A career that has been marked more by bumpy roads than smooth cruises to victory lane has prompted driver A.J. Allmendinger to adopt a short and simple world view: Things happen for a reason.

This week, as he prepares for his first-ever start in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, that weltanschauung is frontburner on Allmendinger’s mind.

Asked during Wednesday’s pre-Chase PR stop at a Kansas City grocery store about his history of surprise firings, unsatisfying results and penalties for poor lifestyle choices, the 32-year-old driver let fly with his personal philosophy more than once.

Things happen for a reason.

Even things like those which happened to him back in 2006 when Allmendinger was driving open-wheel cars in the Champ Car Series.

He was about halfway through his third year with RuSport team, where, as a rare American in the series, he was showing promise by regularly logging top-five – and, even – podium finishes. But four races into that third season, Allmendinger got a call from team owner Carl Russo. It was a call informing him that the team was making yet another driver change. Allmendinger was replaced by veteran Brazilian driver Cristiano da Matta.

The call came just hours after Allmendinger had become engaged to be married.

“It was a little bit of a shock,” Allmendinger said. “I didn’t expect getting that call. It was a hit to my ego.”

Things happen for a reason.

The ego bounced right back, however, when Allmendinger was quickly signed by the more stable Forsythe Racing organization, where he responded by winning five races down the stretch in 2006.

Later that year, he accepted a job to drive in NASCAR, debuting with Bill Davis Racing’s Camping World team at New Hampshire in September. He would finish a very respectable 13th in his fendered-vehicle debut. Two weeks after that, Allmendinger logged a fifth-place finish at Talladega and he would leave the 2.66-mile monster of a race track with many predicting big things for him in NASCAR.

Memory of the predictions began to fade, however, later that autumn. His third truck series start ended with a crash in Atlanta. His Cup debut for Red Bull Racing also produced disappointment as he failed to qualify at both Atlanta and Texas Motor Speedway.

For the next two seasons, with Red Bull, Allmendinger struggled. On qualifying days and on race days. He DNQ’d at the 2008 Daytona 500, again at Fontana and then again at Las Vegas. The team subsequently announced that it was temporarily replacing him with Mike Skinner.

Allmendinger came back – temporarily – in May at Talladega. He was replaced again, this time for good: He was informed he was being dumped by Red Bull just hours after finishing ninth – his career best to that point – at Kansas Speedway in the fall.

Things happen for a reason.

Allmendinger was quickly signed by Michael Waltrip Racing for one race, and then, for the rest of the year by Ray Evernham’s team. In the final five races of the season, he had four top-16 finishes and hopes again shot upward.

That off season, Evernham’s team merged with that of King Richard Petty to become Richard Petty Motorsports. Allmendinger’s tenure with RPM started well as he finished third at Daytona in February of 2009.

But from there, the best that he could do was a couple of seventh-place finishes that year. Worse, in October, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in North Carolina. He was placed on probation by NASCAR and was placed in career jeopardy as he was driving for a team owner who was an avowed opponent of all things alcoholic.

The Dinger kept his RPM job through the 2010 and ’11 seasons but never really clicked, finishing 19th and 15th in points those years respectively.

Things happen for a reason.

Late in the 2011 season , a job opened up at Team Penske as Kurt Busch was dismissed. That seat was filled by Allmendinger at the start of the 2012 season. He said that getting the No. 22 ride from his boyhood hero Roger Penske was his “dream job”.

The dream turned dark and disturbing in July of that season when Allmendinger was suspended by NASCAR for failing a drug test. He was subsequently fired by Penske.

Things happen for a reason.

After competing NASCAR’s recovery program, Allmendinger came back to NASCAR in October of that year. He drove for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team in Cup.

In 2013, Allmendinger bounced around between teams and series. He race six events for Team Penske in the IndyCar Series, two road courses for Penske in the Nationwide Series (winning both) and two races for Michael Shank Racing in the Rolex Grand-Am Series.

He also drove partial Cup schedules for Finch and for JTG/Daugherty Racing in the No. 47 car, in which he started with three top-15 finishes.

In 2014, he was signed for a full-season run in the No. 47 Chevrolet. Thanks in part to becoming a member of the Richard Childress Racing alliance, Allmendinger and the one-car JTG/D team showed flashes of competitiveness through the first half of the season.

Then, in the summer, came the road race at Watkins Glen International. Allmendinger got his first victory. The victory and the fact that he and his team also were running solidly in the top 30 in points, resulted in them being invited to the post season.

And suddenly, Allmendinger’s contention that things happen for a reason came to pass.

Allmendinger has firmed-up authority for his belief. He is saying that things happen for a reason as a member of the Sprint Cup Series’ most prestigious fraternity – the 16-driver playoff field. Beginning this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, he will join the best of the best of NASCAR’s teams and drivers as contenders for a championship.

Broken dreams and remorse over lifestyle indiscretions have been put in perspective by knowledge that with a little a bit of luck – OK, a lot of luck – Allmendinger could earn the big ugly silver trophy come November, not that he is counting on that.

“This stuff of the last couple of years,” he said after signing fresh-baked cookies with frosting autographs during his pre-noon stop at the Kansas City supermarket, “has been a blessing.”

And even if Allmendinger fails to make it past the first round in this year’s revamped Chase format, the positive attitude will remain in tact. He said he will simply use this year as experience for coming years. He said he will cherry pick the positives from 2014 and embrace and learn from them. He said, thanks to things that have happened in the past, he will be able to apply perspective to the things that affect him and his world.

“Even in my darkest moments,” Allmendinger said Wednesday, “I woke up and said I’m still healthy.”

And he said that for great reasons.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 11 2014
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