DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — AJ Allmendinger won five races during the 2006 season in Champ Car, then walked away hoping to launch a new career in NASCAR.
He was at the top of his game when he left open-wheel, and figured he’d make a smooth and successful transition to stock cars.
Instead, he suffered through a miserable five years.
Now, in what seems like a blink of an eye, it has all turned around for Allmendinger.
No driver has had a better offseason than “The ‘Dinger,” who landed the ride of a lifetime right before Christmas when Penske Racing picked him to fill the seat left suddenly open when the team split with former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch.
Then he opened the 2012 racing season with an impressive victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Allmendinger was the anchor for Michael Shank Racing, and used a gritty final stint — he was behind the wheel almost three hours at the end — to give longtime friend Shank his first victory in nine tries in the prestigious endurance event.
It was Allmendinger’s first major racing victory since he walked away from Champ Car at the end of the 2006 season.
“It’s always cool to be me,” Allmendinger quipped when asked about the last five weeks.
Then he quickly turned serious.
“No, I’m just kidding. The last five years, it’s actually (stunk) to be me.”
It was indeed a struggle as Allmendinger went from the top of one series to the bottom of another.
On paper, a deal with upstart Red Bull Racing seemed too good to pass up. The deep-pocketed team was making its entrance into NASCAR and it wanted Allmendinger to drive one of its two cars.
It was a disaster from the very beginning.
Red Bull wasn’t ready to race in the elite Sprint Cup Series, and even worse, it had no development plan for Allmendinger, who was brand new to stock cars. Most open-wheel drivers have been eased into NASCAR with races in either the second-tier Nationwide Series, the Truck Series, or the non-NASCAR affiliated ARCA Series.
But Allmendinger was thrown right to the wolves, and it became obvious immediately that the team and the driver were in very much above their heads.
Both Allmendinger and teammate Brian Vickers struggled to even qualify for races that season, and missing out on the events further slowed Allmendinger’s development. It didn’t take long for him to wonder if he’d made a huge mistake in moving to NASCAR. But the open-wheel leagues were in turmoil, and not even after the merger of Champ Car with the IndyCar Series did Allmendinger know for sure where he belonged.
He called that 2007 season, “Hell. Honestly, it was the worst year of my life when it came to my career.
“There were plenty of times in my bus on Friday, (after) missing a race, it was either, ‘Should I go back to IndyCar or slit my wrists?'” he said. “It sounds kind of over the top, but I knew I wanted to be in the Sprint Cup Series. That’s where the best of the best was. With the two series still split, I had done what I did in Champ Car, and at the point, the IRL wasn’t appealing to me. I had a great opportunity to go to the Sprint Cup Series.
“It was just a tough couple of years. The last few years have been tough.”
He was eventually tossed aside at Red Bull, and landed with Richard Petty Motorsports, where he won a pole and led 232 laps over the last two years. He also became consistent, and notched 10 top-10 finishes, winding up 13th in points when the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field was set.
Even so, his future was unclear.
Best Buy decided to pull its sponsorship from RPM, and the team didn’t have the funding to field a car for Allmendinger. Then Busch split with Penske, and team owner Richard Petty suggested Allmendinger to Roger Penske for his suddenly open seat.
“When you part with a driver with the skills that Kurt has, you don’t just pick up the phone book and find someone who fits into his shoes,” said Penske, who was familiar with Allmendinger’s work in Champ Car.
“He was a great open-wheel driver,” Penske added. “He beat Will Power a couple of times, and you don’t beat Will Power if you’re not a pretty good shoe. We had a couple other people we were looking at, (but) knowing what we could give him and how our sponsors were very happy to have AJ, it was a whole package.”
Now Allmendinger is with a team that won five races last year and put both Busch and Brad Keselowski into the Chase. He knows it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and hopes Sunday’s win at Daytona is the first of many trips to Victory Lane.
“The last few years have been tough,” he said. “I feel like the last two years I’ve at least gotten a good rhythm, and it makes me feel good to know that a guy like Roger Penske can look at my talent and say, ‘You know what? He might not have a Cup win and you have (sponsor) Shell/Pennzoil that’s used to winners and champions in their cars, but if we give him the right stuff he might be able to do that.'”