By Patrick Reynolds
I was considering writing a story about the biggest disappointment of the NASCAR Cup Series season.As the year’s halfway point approached, several names jumped out as underperforming: Last year’s championship challenger Carl Edwards, polarizing with his must-watch style Kyle Busch, and Hendrick Motorsports’ fast but finishing-challenged Jeff Gordon.
After Daytona’s Independence Holiday weekend, one name stood out among all the others.
Allmendinger was already considered for the list by sitting outside the top-20 in championship standings in his first year driving for Roger Penske. “Dinger” was a multi-race Champ Car Series winner when he moved to NASCAR in 2007. He spent five seasons developing his stock car skills until getting an opportunity in the proven Penske ride. Consensus was Allmendinger was ready to step up into a top car and win.
However, his first seventeen events saw only one top-five and just three top-ten finishes heading into Daytona. Then the real disappointment came. Just hours before the green flag waved for that night’s 400-mile challenge, officials announced Allmendinger tested positive on a random NASCAR drug test and was indefinitely suspended.
He wanted his own representative present for the secondary test on his urine B sample. The rep was present and so were the same results. Allmendinger has now entered NASCAR’s Road to Recovery Program.
When the first test results were announced I was disappointed. I kept positive thoughts as the second test date approached. When the results were made public, this story became a little bit tougher to write from personal experience.
I worked in the suspension department at Red Bull’s new NASCAR team in 2007. Allmendinger had just made the leap to Red Bull from the Champ Car Series and was brand new to the stock car world. The driving adjustment to cars with fenders, double the weight, and half of the tire contact patch provided its challenges. He crashed six cars in his first seven tests. But his attitude was never damaged.
Allmendinger was determined and passionate behind the wheel. He was committed to NASCAR when he made the jump from open wheel racing. That move saw a career shift from being a five-race winner in his final year with Champ Car to not qualifying for his first five NASCAR Cup attempts.
This was a guy I knew. A guy I worked alongside and who felt like a legitimate teammate. Dinger made it a point to come into the shop, hang out, just talk, and visit.
I did not feel like a superstar was granting me the time of day. I felt like a peer walked over to say hello. We leaned on a bench together and chatted for a few minutes.
I would ask about his online racing. He would ask about my wife and children. Allmendinger was one of the few top-level NASCAR drivers I worked with that took the time to do this.
He cracked a lot of jokes. Always looking for a funny reply to any question first then offering a straight answer.
And he felt bad about those wrecked test cars and the extra days all of us in the shop
needed to work. We all appreciated his humility.
Allmendinger has endured the redefining of his name from a championship contender, to stock car rookie, through the inevitable steep NASCAR learning curve, and finally returning to being poised for a win. The opportunity with Penske looked to complete that cycle.
Now, a steep road lies ahead. A far steeper road than the Champ Car-to-NASCAR career rebuilding path he traveled over the past five seasons.