"Your name here" as driver of the No. 22 Dodge Charger? - NASCAR photoEnlarge Photo
AJ Allmendinger had it made, driving for The Captain, Roger Penske in NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series. He took over from Kurt Busch, who left Penske Racing "by mutual agreement" after the 2011 season; Allmendinger came to his new position from Richard Petty Motorsports, where he'd developed as a driver and appeared ready to make that obligatory move forward with the kind of equipment and support Penske affords his teams.
As their first season together demonstrated, it takes time for a driver and team to get to know one another. Everything is different for the incoming driver - cars, engines (which are changed from last year anyway with the adoption of electronic fuel injection), location of the shop and its makeup, the manner of working with sponsors (the Penske Way) and what's expected on the track. Allmendinger jumped in and appeared to be gelling with his group on the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger Sprint Cup race car.
Then came Kentucky and Allmendinger's failed random drug test, ostensibly for an unidentified stimulant. The "A" sample, sent to Aegis Analytical Laboratories in Nashville, TN came back positive and Allmendinger was removed from the car by NASCAR on the eve of the Sprint Cup series race at its ancestral home, Daytona International Speedway. Sam Hornish Jr flew in to hurriedly race for Penske; he's contesting the Nationwide Series and lies fourth in the points standings.
When Allmendinger's second, "B" sample came back positive as well at Aegis, the driver received an indefinite suspension pending his successful activities in NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and clean tests thereafter. During last weekend's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, team owner Roger Penske said he intended to speak with Allmendinger this week.
They spoke and Penske Racing announced that AJ Allmendinger has been released as driver of the No. 22 Dodge. "Penske Racing fully supports NASCAR's substance abuse policy and we are disappointed with AJ's positive drug test results," said Roger Penske. "AJ is a terrific driver, a good person and it is very unfortunate that we have to separate at this time.
"We have invested greatly in AJ," he explained, "and we were confident in his success with our team. The decision to dismiss him is consistent with how we would treat any other Penske Racing team member under similar circumstances. As AJ begins NASCAR's ‘Road to Recovery’ program, we wish him the best and look forward to seeing him compete again in NASCAR."
This is not the first time Penske has had to deal with a driver's unbecoming activities. The release of Busch last year stemmed from that driver's tendency to open his mouth at inopportune moments and vent, with his actions recorded by fans and media alike. Penske had no choice but to release Kurt Busch, despite his championship-caliber capabilities. Penske released Al Unser Jr in 1999 after that driver's difficulties with alcohol and drugs in the CART/Champ Car Series; it was widely believed by those on the team that Unser Jr stopped trying two years before Penske let him go.
Now Allmendinger's positive drug test has likely doomed him from ever having a competitive drive in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, quite a shame because the driver has shown his capabilities since he first appeared in a Paul Tracy go-kart in 2000, since he won the Skip Barber and Atlantic championships in subsequent years and since he showed the ability to win in CART/Champ Car before bolting for stock car racing.
"Effective today," Allmendinger said in his statement, "I have been released from Penske Racing as driver of the No. 22 Dodge Charger. I wish to thank Mr Penske, Penske Racing, their sponsors and especially all of the No. 22 team for the opportunity their provided me and for their support in this difficult time. I also, again, would like to thank all the fans that really have been awesome through this.
“I apologize for the distraction, embarrassment, and difficulties that my current suspension from NASCAR has provided," Allmendinger continued. "As I stated last week, I have begun NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and look forward to using those resources and its completion to compete again in NASCAR in the near future.”
Sam Hornish Jr is continuing to race in the No. 22 Dodge this weekend at Pcono "and for the foreseeable future," Penske Racing stated. "Penske Racing will evaluate its options for a driver of the No. 22 car for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season." Among those looking for a new deal are Joey Logano, currently with Joe Gibbs Racing and Brian Vickers, who's been driving part-time with Michael Waltrip Racing, both Toyota teams. Penske Racing is returning to Ford's engine program in 2013 and beyond.