For the first time in his stock car career, A.J. Allmendinger had a top-tier ride coming into the 2012 season. He had inherited Kurt Busch's former ride at Penske Racing, joining a team that had made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the previous season and showed his promise in the car by scoring a career-best second-place finish at Martinsville.
Of course, that was all turned on its head on July 7, when NASCAR removed Allmendinger from his car before the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona due to a positive drug test. Last night, NASCAR announced that his "B" sample also tested positive, leading to his indefinite suspension from the sport.
"I'm sorry we even have to have this going on," Allmendinger tweeted late last night. "But I promise... I will do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this and get out there, no matter what."
"Whatever it takes" will start with the completion of NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, which is required of all drug offenders. Judging by past instances, the program can take anywhere from months to years to complete.
Former driver Shane Hmiel was reinstated in January 2004 after his first positive test in September 2003, while former crew member Paul Chodora remained suspended from February 2009 to January 2011. Meanwhile, driver Brian Rose served one of the longest suspensions in the sport's history, from 2003 to 2010.
It's impossible to peg Allmendinger in that range without knowing what he tested positive for, something that neither his PR firm nor NASCAR is willing to release. The suggestion that he was within "nanograms" of an accepted level means he could be on the shorter end of the timeline, but even that would mean missing the majority of the rest of the season.
But the challenges are even steeper from there, as Allmendinger will have to fight the stigma that comes from a positive test immediately upon his return.
If he can convince Roger Penske and sponsor Shell/Pennzoil of his innocence, finding a way to prove that something had made its way into one of his supplements by mistake, he could get his old ride back. If not—and keep in mind that Penske Racing is an organization that has historically preferred clean-cut drivers—he may have to rebuild his career elsewhere, as Sam Hornish seems poised to return to Cup on a full-time basis sooner rather than later.
There are plenty of options, though none of them would involve a competitive Sprint Cup team without a miraculous sponsor check that is unlikely to materialize. If Allmendinger wanted to be competitive once again, he would likely have to move to the Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series.
He could even head back to open-wheel racing for the right offer; a torrid stretch of five wins in the 2006 Champ Car season was actually the opus for his transition to stock cars.
Unfortunately for Allmendinger, it's anyone's guess as to where his career will go from here. But given past instances of failed drug tests in NASCAR, there's a good chance that we could never see him at the sport's highest level again.