AJ Allmendinger: A Career of Bad Breaks and Wasted Opportunities
After Wednesday's news that A.J. Allmendinger had been released from Penske Racing (via David Newton of ESPN), the 30-year-old Allmendinger is faced with the real possibility that his NASCAR career is, for all intents and purposes, over.
If this is the last time Allmendinger is seen at NASCAR's top level again, it will be a sad punctuation mark on a career that had enormous potential but never really got off the ground.
Allmendinger has shown flashes of talent in his Sprint Cup Series career. But, more times than not, any momentum or opportunity for success has been cut down by his personal mistakes or him being an unfortunate victim of circumstance.
The Los Gatos, California native was a hot, young star in the Champ Car World Series in 2006—amassing five wins and 14 podium finishes in a short three-year career—when he was offered a deal to drive for newly formed Team Red Bull in the Sprint Cup Series.
But the combination of an inexperienced driver in Allmendinger and a brand new race team that were racing a brand new make of car—Toyota—created such a learning curve that made progress seem like a pipe dream in 2007.
Allmendinger missed the '07 Daytona 500 after crashing during his Gatorade Duel qualifying race. In fact, he failed to qualify for the first five races of 2007 and qualified for only 17 of the 36 that year.
After veteran Mike Skinner took over the seat for the early part of 2008 due to another one of Allmendinger's poor starts, Allmendinger returned, and the team's performance began to improve. He notched his first top-10 finish at Indianapolis in July 2008 and would earn three more top-20 finishes over the next 10 races.
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But following a career-best ninth-place finish at Kansas that fall, Allmendinger was suddenly released from Red Bull Racing in favor of young newcomer Scott Speed, abruptly ending all the progress that had been made.
Allmendinger found a new home at Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009. He finally made the Daytona 500 in his third try, recording his first career top-five finish with a third-place result, and qualified for all 36 races for the first time in his career.
In October 2009, though, Allmendinger jeopardized his ride when he was charged with a DUI in North Carolina. He was placed on probation by NASCAR for the rest of '09 but not penalized further.
Allmendinger spent the next two seasons in the famous No. 43 and continued to improve, earning three more top-five finishes and finishing at a career-best 15th in the final 2011 point standings.
When Kurt Busch vacated Penske Racing's No. 22 car after the 2011 season, Allmendinger was hired to take over a ride that had made the Chase just three months prior. He seemed to have finally landed the big break he was looking for.
Allmendinger's 2012 season was seemingly doomed from the start, though, as he finished 34th in Daytona after a pit road crash with Ryan Newman. Save for a second-place finish at Martinsville, Allmendinger did not register a single top-10 finish in the first 15 races of 2012.
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Then, true to form, just as things began to look up, disaster struck. Allmendinger and the Shell/Pennzoil team finally put together back-to-back ninth-place finishes at Kentucky and Sonoma and seemed to be getting things on the right track...until the bombshell came down just before the July race at Daytona that Allmendinger was suspended for failing a random drug test.
Just like that, all the momentum, and all the promise was zapped from Allmendinger's season and perhaps his career.
In a sponsor-driven sport like NASCAR, black eyes such as this one are next to impossible to overcome. You might be allowed back on a football field or basketball court after failing a drug test, but when you want someone from corporate America to plaster their name all over your driving suit, a failed drug test can be lethal to a career.
Of course, there's a possibility that if Allmendinger completes NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, perhaps some owner will take a shot to put him back in a ride in one of NASCAR's three national touring series. But he can hang up any thought of ever getting a shot with a team of the caliber of the one that he was just booted from.
And that's a shame. Allmendinger seems like a nice enough guy. He has always carried himself well in front of the camera in interviews and seemed like he was finally on the fast track to stardom after years of struggles.
But, at this point, it looks like his career—or lack thereof—will go down as one of the biggest wastes of talent in NASCAR history.
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