WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — It’s always particularly gratifying when someone returns from the abyss — gratifying because it’s so rare and unexpected.
Two years ago, AJ Allmendinger made a horrific mistake. NASCAR pulled his number for a random drug test before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, and during the following week, the test came back positive.
The Kentucky race would be Allmendinger’s last in the No. 22 Team Penske car, one of the most coveted rides in the Cup garage.
That would be the start of a long, difficult journey for the 32-year-old driver who on Sunday at Watkins Glen International validated the effort to revive his racing career with a riveting, hotly contested victory in the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.
Allmendinger, who completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program after the failed drug test and subsequent suspension from competition, turned introspective after the win, acknowledging that, when he landed the ride with team owner Roger Penske for the 2012 season, he wasn’t prepared for the accompanying pressure.
“When I got with Roger, I knew it was the best opportunity of my life, and I tried to fake it inside and say this is the right time for it,” Allmendinger said. “I kept telling myself, ‘Yeah, this is the right time for it,’ but I knew it wasn’t the right time for it.
“Over the course of what happened, it made me become a better person and just really try to understand what life is all about because unfortunately the sport will take over your life. It will completely … when it’s good, it takes over, but when it’s bad, it really takes over, because that’s all you can think about.”
Allmendinger’s suspension gave Penske no choice but to replace him in the No. 22. Nevertheless, on the strength of his warm personality and genuine likability, Allmendinger had banked enough currency in the sport to earn a second chance — a slow, gradual second chance.
After completing the Road to Recovery, Allmendinger raced four times for team owner James Finch in the final two months of the 2012 season.
In 2013, he competed in 18 of the 36 NASCAR Sprint Cup points races, driving for Finch and for JTG/Daugherty, the latter after the team opted to use Allmendinger in lieu of Bobby Labonte for the mid-season Michigan and Kentucky race.
All told, Allmendinger got behind the wheel of the No. 47 car nine times that year. JTG/Daugherty subsequently signed Allmendinger to drive full-time in 2014 and beyond.
That same season, Penske put Allmendinger in his No. 22 Nationwide Series car for the road-course races at Road America and Mid-Ohio. Allmendinger won both.
Beyond that, Penske fielded a car for Allmendinger in six IndyCar races, including the Indianapolis 500. Allmendinger, who came to stock car racing from an open-wheel background, led 23 laps at Indy and finished seventh, even though problems with his harness forced an unscheduled pit stop midway through the race.
And on Sunday, after he and Marcos Ambrose took racing at the Glen to an almost impossibly high level, Allmendinger repaid the faith of team owners Brad Daugherty and Tad and Jodi Geschickter by delivering the team’s first Sprint Cup victory.
With the victory comes a virtually guaranteed berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, where JTG/Daugherty and Allmendinger will compete against the giants of the sport.
It will be a huge step up in class for the single-car team.
But that step pales in comparison with the journey Allmendinger has already made.