By Reid Spencer (HAMPTON, Ga.) –After 14 turbulent months, AJ Allmendinger finds himself where he never expected to be again–back in a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride.
The announcement came Saturday afternoon in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center. Allmendinger will drive the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing car in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series in 2014, the first year of a multiyear agreement.
Allmendinger will replace 2000 Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte, whose contract with the organization has not been renewed.
“In a way, I feel like I’m playing with house money,” said Allmendinger, who at this time last year was serving an indefinite suspension from NASCAR racing for a violation of the sanctioning body’s substance abuse policy.
“I didn’t think I’d be back here… I never thought I’d have this opportunity again, so it’s almost like starting over, but kind of being reborn and knowing that I have a real shot.”
Last July at Daytona, Allmendinger was informed he had failed a random drug test administered a week earlier at Kentucky Speedway. When a “B” sample test confirmed the positive test, team owner Roger Penske was forced to fire Allmendinger from the glamor ride he had earned just seventh months earlier.
After completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program and gaining reinstatement, Allmendinger drove James Finch’s Cup car late in the season, an opportunity Allmendinger considers critical in keeping his face and name in front of other potential owners.
Earlier this year, Penske offered Allmendinger the opportunity to drive for his IndyCar Series team. Allmendinger led 23 laps in the Indianapolis 500 in May and ultimately finished seventh after having to pit from the lead to have his belts tightened.
In two Nationwide Series starts in Penske’s No. 22 Nationwide car, at Road America and Mid-Ohio, Allmendinger won both times. JTG Daugherty asked him to drive the No. 47 car to benchmark the team’s progress with the new Gen-6 Cup car and the Electronic Fuel Injection system introduced last year.
Ultimately, those races blossomed into a full-time ride.
“Things just kind of kept falling into place, and I kind of said that I don’t feel like I ever deserved it,” Allmendinger said. “I didn’t deserve the second chance, but I worked really hard to get there. I felt like I was more ready than I’d ever been, that if any opportunity ever came up, I was more prepared mentally, physically and emotionally to get in there and give my full effort…
“It’s been a long journey over the last 12 months, but in a strange way, I’d never change it. As weird as that sounds, with the kind of the hell that I had to start going through initially, the place that I’m at now as a person–I feel so much better about it.”
Despite his status as a full-time Cup driver, Allmendinger won’t rule out a Charlotte/Indy double next May, as long as Penske is willing.
“You’d have to ask Roger on that,” Allmendinger said. “I can drive 1,100 miles on a Sunday–I’m good. If that opportunity’s there, I’m not going to say no.”
JTG Daugherty co-owner Tad Geschickter, ever mindful of who ultimately pays the bills, gave his enthusiastic endorsement of the plan.
“Absolutely,” Geschickter said. “Memorial Day’s the biggest charcoal holiday of the year. Let’s do PR everywhere.”
Kingsford Charcoal, of course, is one of the many brands that sponsor the No. 47 car.