What a long, strange trip the 2012 NASCAR season has been for A.J. Allmendinger. That saga finally came to an end on Wednesday, when Penske Racing finally released Allmendinger nearly a month after a failed drug test removed him from his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge.
Allmendinger's career at Penske ends with three top-10 finishes in 17 starts, including a career-best second-place finish at Martinsville in April, and one admission into NASCAR's Road to Recovery program. Granted, the alliance likely would have ended at the conclusion of this season anyway, when Allmendinger's one-year contract expired.
Unlike former driver Kurt Busch, who made it into last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup only to be fired after a string of erratic behavior, Allmendinger only cracked the top 20 in points once all season and was 23rd in the standings at the time of his suspension.
Allmendinger only finished on the lead lap seven times, though the final two—at Sonoma and Kentucky—were his first consecutive top-10 finishes of the year. His best opportunity came when he started on the pole at Kansas and led 44 laps, only to run out of gas and drop a cylinder and finish 10 laps down in 32nd.
Penske made the decision for the time being to replace Allmendinger with Sam Hornish Jr., another former open-wheel star who has had his share of struggles in stock cars. Currently fourth in Nationwide Series points, Hornish has made the most of his second chance at a Cup ride, having only failed to complete one lap in the past two races.
Meanwhile, the long-term prospects for both driver and team are a bit less certain.
After he completes NASCAR's treatment program, Allmendinger will have to fight public perception to ever land another ride, never mind one as prestigious as one of Penske's cars. In fact, he may never see a competitive stock car ride again, and he might have to rely on friend Michael Shank for a ride in either the Rolex Sports Car Series or IndyCar, if Shank's proposed open-wheel team ever gets off the ground.
For Penske, however, the options are a bit more appealing, as many drivers are still unsigned for the 2013 season and beyond.
Signing Denny Hamlin may be a pipe dream, while Busch and Ryan Newman are unlikely to return as ex-Penske drivers who left on less-than-stellar terms. Recently, speculation has centered on the ride going to Joey Logano, who appears likely to lose his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to Matt Kenseth.
Hornish could earn the ride for 2012, though Penske's original plans had been to move him up to Cup in a third car. With Penske's imminent switch to Ford power in 2013, Trevor Bayne, who has been running a limited Cup schedule for the Wood Brothers, has also come up as a possible replacement.
Unfortunately, Allmendinger's positive drug test has plenty of negative effects on the future for both sides. Penske will employ their third (or fourth, if not Hornish) driver in the No. 22 car in three years next season, while Allmendinger's entire career is in jeopardy.
It's a situation with no winners, and some pretty big losers, Allmendinger most of all. What had been a great opportunity for both sides to advance to the next level ends with nothing more than disappointment and major rebuilding projects ahead.
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