NASCAR’s great redemption story of recent memory came to a close with AJ Allmendinger’s first career Sprint Cup win at Watkins Glen on Sunday. With the close of that story comes the beginning of another; his quest to find consistency as a proven winner.
To understand the implications of his win, flash back to two years ago. At this point in the 2012 season, Allmendinger was watching races from his couch. He had landed the coveted No. 22 ride at Team Penske prior to that season, and his career looked brighter than ever, until testing positive for Adderall in June and being suspended indefinitely. He was reinstated a few months later after completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, but by that time he had lost his gig at Penske. The following season saw Allmendinger jump back and forth between fill-in dates at Phoenix Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, neither of which offered the same resources he had at Penske.
Despite a rough part-time schedule in 2013, Allmendinger was able to put his talent on display in different venues. Proof of his talent was evident through his continued support from Roger Penske, who brought Allmendinger on board to run the Indianapolis 500 and multiple Nationwide races.
Penske doesn’t put just anyone in his cars, particularly someone who failed a drug test and essentially threw away a season under his banner the previous year. There is too much young talent to waste time on a problem-driver, but Penske saw something in Allmendinger. He finished seventh in his first Indy 500 and won two Nationwide road course races, all while driving Penske cars.
He was signed to JTG Daugherty Racing for the 2014 season and saw it as his chance for redemption. He was quoted early in the season, confidently claiming he would win a race before the end of the year. Then on Sunday he stayed true to his word and won.
Watkins Glen was the last of the season’s real wild-card races leading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup. That means if winless drivers want in now, they are going to have to do it on the oval tracks of Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta or Richmond, all of which the Sprint Cup has already visited this season. Allmendinger has been fast at some ovals this year, but none offer the opportunity that the Glen offered. His win there proves to the NASCAR world that he is now officially a road course ringer at the premier level of stock car racing.
Allmendinger’s fervor behind the wheel was evident through his screaming and celebration on his radio after winning at the Glen, but it isn’t just a form of celebration. He is known as an intensely passionate driver with serious skill, but his reputation doesn’t precede him. He doesn’t need to slap a self-given nickname over the door of his car in an attempt to tell people what he’s all about.
Allmendinger pounced on his last real opportunity to turn 2014 into something great. While a win on an oval track isn’t out of the question, the competition knew all along that Allmendinger was an obstacle necessary to overcome in the two road course races. On Sunday he proved that he was indeed too big an obstacle. Now he must look to recreating that presence on the oval tracks that make up 34 of the 36 points races.
AJ Allmendinger is now a Chase-bound driver. His future looks brighter than it ever has. He’s in the spotlight, and the next 14 races are his opportunity to show NASCAR fans what he is capable of.