Monday, July 9, 2012

Strike Two on The 'Dinger

This was gonna be AJ Allmendinger’s year.

At least that’s what I thought after his stirring drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona to start the season.  He drove a monster three-hour shift to win the race, turning back the challenge of three-time Le Mans winner Allan McNish in the process. 

He had also signed with Roger Penske Racing to drive a Dodge alongside Brad Keselowski in Sprint Cup.  It was only a one-year deal, but if he performed well, the possibility of a long-term contract with one of the top teams in NASCAR was a possibility.

Instead of being the Year of the Dragon, I suggested 2012 could be the “Year of the Dinger.”

Everything changed Saturday afternoon, when just 90 minutes before the running of the Firecracker 400, NASCAR announced it was suspending Allmendinger for failing a random urine drug test conducted the week before at Kentucky.  He’s asked for his “B” sample to be tested as is his right, but Ryan Braun aside, it’s not very often such finding are reversed.    If the “B” sample also is found to be positive, Allmendinger will be suspended indefinitely and must take part in NASCAR’s drug rehab program before he can start racing again.

It will take “approximately” five days to get the results of the second test (seems like a long time) and Penske Racing has already announced Sam Hornish will again drive the No. 22 this weekend in New Hampshire so the team can properly prepare for the race.

Allmendinger has always been a bit of loose cannon.   Colorful, charismatic and with tremendous potential, but a loose cannon.   He came up through the CART ranks during the civil war with the IRL, winning six of 10 races and the Barber Dodge Series championship in 2002.  The next year he moved up to Toyota Atlantic, winning seven of 12 and another championship.   He moved up again to champ cars the following season and while it took three years, he won five times, three in a row in 2006.

Late in the year, however, he ran a couple of Craftsman Series truck races and the next season moved to Sprint Cup with the new Red Bull Toyota team, who figured he was the perfect driver to represent the brand.  It was a major blow to open wheel racing, at the time on a scale of losing Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart to NASCAR and on a par with Danica Patrick’s defection. 

The first year in NASCAR he was known as AJ Wallbanger, for obvious reasons.  As he hit fewer walls, he became The Dinger, in part because he was, well, kinda out there.

Five years later we're still waiting for Dinger’s breakout year in NASCAR.  He had one win with Red Bull in an All-Star preliminary event before he was cut loose for Scott Speed.  He went to Richard Petty Motorsports and again seemed ready to win, before leaving this year for Penske Racing.  After starting the season with such promise, 2012 has to be considered a disappointment.   He’s not in the top 20 in points and has only one top five finish.   Meanwhile, teammate Keselowski has three wins and is in the top 10.  Still, before Saturday’s suspension, the Penske team had indicated – at least publicly – it would like to have Allmendinger back next season.   Despite those pronouncements, it seemed like a long shot. 

It’s an even longer shot now. 

It’s doubtful that Penske, who put up with a lot of guff from Kurt Busch because Busch had a lot of talent, is likely to give Allmendinger the same leeway.  

And that will be too bad. 

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