O Opinions & Commentary

Coming Full Circle

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It’s not likely how A.J. Allmendinger would have scripted his open-wheel racing comeback – he’ll make his first start since 2006 at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday – but the fact that the one-time Champ Car phenom is going back to his racing roots has the hallmarks of a classic return of the prodigal son story.

Many observers (this one included) have long felt the affable and engaging Californian should have never left open-wheel racing to seek greater fame and fortune in NASCAR in the first place, and judging by on-track results alone, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

Simply put, Allmendinger hasn’t done much in nearly six seasons in the NASCAR’s top-level Sprint Cup Series despite running for some decent teams. His 2012 season was interrupted due to a failed drug test. He was subsequently suspended and entered NASCAR's rehabilitation program, but lost his ride with Penske Racing in the process.

Although he has since managed to resurrect his Cup career (he has a deal in place to run a handful of races in 2013 with the small, single-car Phoenix Racing team), the postive drug test has afforded Allmendinger the opportunity to keep his racing options open, which has to be viewed as a silver lining in this cloud given the state of his NASCAR career.  

At the time of his suspension, Allmendinger was scuffling along with just one top five finish in 17 starts, and well on his way to posting another average season. In five previous seasons, he notched only two poles and didn’t register a single win. Top fives have been almost as scarce (four) and although he has 29 career top tens, more than a third of them (10) came in one season (2011).

DSC 0242Consequently, Allmendinger has never been a factor in the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup where the top 12 drivers in the standings compete for the championship during the final ten races of the season. The closest he came was in 2011 when he finished 15th.

Although some might attribute Allmendinger’s rather underwhelming NASCAR career to the fact that he’s never competed for one of the acknowledged 'big four' teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing) and therefore didn’t have the best equipment and personnel at his disposal, that notion ignores the reality that he’s up against a deep field of drivers who have raced in nothing but stock cars for most, if not all, of their careers.

With the exception of three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, most drivers with open-wheel backgrounds have not faired well in NASCAR. Aside from Stewart, who won three races in the early days of the IRL, including the series second championship in 1996-97, only two other drivers with open-wheel roots have won in NASCAR in recent years.

Former CART Champion and Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya has three NASCAR wins (two Cup, one Nationwide) in more than 200 starts since the beginning of 2007, while three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish, Jr. has managed just two wins in the Nationwide Series in more than 200 combined Cup / Nationwide starts since 2008.

And let’s not mince words here: both Montoya and Hornish have very impressive racing credentials – outside of NASCAR. By any measure, both of these men are among the finest open-wheel drivers of their generation, with a combined 29 Indy car wins, seven Formula One victories, four IndyCar titles and two Indy 500 wins.

41BK0275These guys are good, outstanding even, but in the hyper-competitive arena of NASCAR with its 43-car fields and 36-race seasons, they’re little more than mid-pack field fillers. Hornish has been more competitive since he dropped down to the Nationwide Series in 2011 where he’s notched both of his wins, but Montoya has qualified for the Chase just once (2009) in six full-time Cup seasons through 2012 and has finished no higher than 17th in points in the other five.

The bottom line here is it’s exceedingly difficult to transition from light, high-downforce open-wheel cars to heavier, full-bodied stock cars with little downforce that require a driver to radically alter his or her driving style and have any measure of success. It’s akin to forcing a left-handed person to become a natural righty almost overnight.

A.J. Allmendinger’s lack of success in NASCAR puts him in good company amongst his open-wheel brethren and while it’s a shame that chapter of his career hasn’t been filled with much success, he now has an opportunity to change the narrative and return to victory lane.

I’m not suggesting it will happen immediately – at present his deal with Penske is for just three races, Barber, Long Beach and the Indy 500 – but if he can somehow find his way into a competitive full-time ride, whether it's with Penske or some other outfit, I think Allmendinger will win races.

The IZOD IndyCar Series features a very deep and talented grid at the moment, but with five career top-level wins (albeit in Champ Car during the split in the mid-2000s), plus a Formula Atlantic title to his credit (in 2003), Allmendinger’s talent in an open-wheel race car is proven.

Sure, it will probably take some time to knock the rust off, but top ten finishes are well within the realm of possibility, and if he manages to win one of these three races, especially Indy, well…that could put an end to his NASCAR career.

Regardless of the outcome, Allmendinger’s return should be one of the more compelling storylines of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

Photography by Shawn Gritzmacher and Bret Kelley

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