A.J. Allmendinger made his much anticipated (and long overdue) open-wheel racing return at Sebring this week.
While pundits will be quick to point out that he posted the 12th best time from a group of 13 drivers, I would like to highlight that Allmendinger was only 0.671 seconds off pace-setter Takuma Sato’s best time. If you’d really like to compare apples to apples, he was only 0.208 seconds off teammate Helio Castroneves’ time.
Not bad for a guy whose last open-wheel outing was back in 2006.
While it’s only a test, there is reason to believe that this could blossom into a ride—whether it’s full-time or not remains to be seen, but all signs point to a partial schedule.
A part-time ride isn’t something to write off. In fact, it can actually be quite liberating.
Think about it—if Allmendinger does manage a partial schedule and returns to his winning ways, we have the benefit of watching him drop in every couple of races to take points away from Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay or whoever else may be in the hunt for the championship.
Not possible, you say? He’s been out of the cockpit of an open-wheel car far too long to have an impact. That might be true, but Allmendinger’s homecoming resembles the same path other Penske drivers have taken.
As history demonstrates, IndyCar’s latest "Renaissance Man" won’t be taking a revolutionary road home. Let’s look at the evidence.
Ryan Briscoe: In between Briscoe’s winning ways, it’s easy to forget that he was cast out of IndyCar racing and also had to find his way back to greatness. The former Toyota F1 test driver landed one of the most coveted seats back in 2005 when he signed with Chip Ganassi Racing. Despite leading the most laps at St. Petersburg, Briscoe never really found his form. Both his season and career almost came to an abrupt and violent end at Chicagoland Speedway.
Fully recovered from his injuries, Briscoe spent the next two seasons in limbo racing a variety of different cars in various series. But all of that would change in 2007.
Jumping into the American Le Mans Series with Penske’s newly-built (and very sexy) LMP2 Porsche, Briscoe would put the car in victory lane three times and finish third in the final ALMS point standings.
Briscoe was also tapped by Jay Penske, Roger Penske’s son, to race for his burgeoning IndyCar team at the Indy 500. He didn’t disappoint, qualifying seventh and finishing fifth. The following season he was promoted to Team Penske’s IndyCar program, and went on to win seven races in five seasons.
Will Power: With the way this man muscles an IndyCar around a track, it’s difficult to believe that he could ever be without a job. When Power’s ride at KV Racing evaporated with his Australian wine sponsorship at the end of 2008, the Aussie racer who won the final Champ Car race in Long Beach was left to watch from the sidelines.
However, just like fellow countryman Briscoe, Team Penske came calling with a part-time opportunity for 2009.
In only six starts he managed one win, two poles, and two podiums. In fact, Power’s worst finish was ninth at Kentucky. To put that into perspective, Robert Doornbos started every race in 2009 for Newman/Haas Racing, and ninth place was the best he could pull off.
And we need little reminder of the impact he made when Team Penske gave him a full-time ride. Yes, he’s been the IndyCar Championship bridesmaid for the last three seasons, but he has notched 14 wins during that period—more than any other driver since 2010.
We’ll have to wait and see if Penske can replicate this magic with Allmendinger. One thing is for certain, the IndyCar series talent pool just got a whole lot deeper.
Welcome home, A.J.
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