NASCAR: Is A.J. Allmendinger Chase-Worthy for Penske Racing?

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NASCAR: Is A.J. Allmendinger Chase-Worthy for Penske Racing?
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

A.J. Allmendinger has been the victim of a tumultuous five years since he left open-wheel racing to pursue NASCAR. His stints with Red Bull Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports proved to be less than gratifying, but he appears to have hit the jackpot with Penske Racing.

At the end of the 2011 season, the sponsor for the No. 43 driven by Allmendinger, Best Buy, jumped ship for the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford driven by Matt Kenseth.

The future looked less than secure for the driver known as the "Dinger," and one of the "silly season" predictions was that Kurt Busch would become the driver of the No. 43 after his departure from Penske Racing.

Allmendinger drove full-time in the Sprint Cup Series for the last three years, and though he didn't set the world on fire, he has made steady improvements each year, finishing 15th in the standings last season.

The ability to finish races and his continuous ability to improve his performance did not go unnoticed by Roger Penske.

After the 26th race of the 2011 season, Allmendinger was 13th in the points standings, 13 points behind 12th-place Denny Hamlin. Penske gave Allmendinger the opportunity of his racing career when he named him the driver of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, replacing Kurt Busch.

The new driver of the No. 22 referred to Penske as the "pinnacle."

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

"It's my time to go out and deliver victories," Allmendinger said. "I have big shoes to fill. Kurt is one of the best guys out there. For sure, when it comes to outright speed, outright driving a Sprint Cup car."

Indeed, he does have big shoes to fill, but his pairing with Brad Keselowski at Penske Racing seems to be a wise one. The two drivers are getting to know each other, with Keselowski providing leadership.

Allmendinger is much more of an extrovert than his teammate, but the two compliment each other nicely.

"I can honestly say this is the most excited I have been since coming to the Cup Series," Allmendinger said. "How can I not come into the garage every day and not have a smile on my face? This is the best situation I've had."

The Dinger was part of the winning team in the Rolex 24 at Daytona last weekend. In a three-hour stretch, he brought the car to Victory Lane with an aggressive bumping-and-banging, NASCAR-style finale.

Though driving a Grand-Am car on the infield circuit and high banks at Daytona is a great race,  it doesn't really translate over to NASCAR performance.

For Allmendinger, being part of the winning team in the 50th Anniversary Rolex 24 was the biggest win of his career, giving him confidence heading into Speedweeks at Daytona.

John Harrelson/Getty Images

During the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, there seemed to be a permanent smile on Allmendinger's face, and his swagger was clearly evident with his crisp white shirt and black slacks that are standard Penske attire.

Last year Penske Racing had both of the team's drivers, Keselowski and Busch, in the Chase. Penske is proud of the strong sponsorship they have and the solidarity of the organization.

Now Allmendinger, who drove for "the King," Richard Petty, is driving for "the Captain." It just may be his time to shine as a Cup Series driver with top-tier equipment, and making the Chase might be a reality in 2012.

All quotes were obtained in person or by official press releases unless otherwise noted.

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