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NSCS: AJ Allmendinger Proof Positive That There’s Life After Road To Recovery

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.  – Just three years ago it seemed that at the age of 30, AJ Allmendinger was destined to be the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ next first-time winner. He was also potentially a driver who could become a superstar with his fun, outgoing attitude, and support from new car owner — Roger Penske. But Allmendinger’s career nearly came to a screeching halt when he tested positive for Adderall — a substance banned by NASCAR — before the summer race at Daytona in 2012.

“You know, 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.  I kept telling myself, yeah, this is the right time for it, but I knew it wasn’t the right time for it,” said Allmendinger Sunday,  ”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.”

The past hadn’t been favorable to drivers with a history of substance abuse issues, so it was easy for many — myself included — to write Allmendinger off.

Shane Hmiel, son of former Cup Series crew chief Steve Hmiel, had a bright future. Hmiel graduated from the Goody’s Dash Series and began competing at the Nationwide Series level in 2002. He earned two poles, recorded eight top-10 finishes and ended the year 16th in points. It looked like with some polishing Hmiel could be a potential future NASCAR champion.

In September of 2003, Hmiel tested positive for marijuana, and things would spiral out of control fast. Hmiel would work his way back into the sport, but two more failed drug tests finally got him suspended from NASCAR for life. In 2010 Hmiel nearly lost his life in an accident while qualifying for a USAC Silver Crown race, and is now paralyzed.

We had seen the unfortunate demise of Kevin Grubb. Grubb was a young driver, who didn’t look to have Sprint Cup-level talent, but he was a very admirable competitor in the then NASCAR Busch Series. From 1997 to 2003, Grubb had started 169 races in NASCAR’s second-tier series, but he was busted in a substance abuse test in March of 2004.

Grubb was out of racing all the way up until 2006, when he was reinstated by NASCAR under the caveat that he would endure random, and unannounced drug tests. Just five races later Grubb was suspended again by the sanctioning body for refusing to take another drug test. Three years later, Grubb was found dead after committing suicide at a motel.

Then of course the biggest name driver who has ever flunked a drug test in NASCAR is without a doubt Jeremy Mayfield. The NASCAR world was shocked when Mayfield, a five-time Sprint Cup Series race winner, and two-time Chase for the Sprint Cup participant had tested positive for methamphetamine in May of 2009. Mayfield had the chance to enter NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program, but the scuttlebutt at the time was that even if Mayfield were to complete the program, he’d have a hard time finding a sponsor wanting to take a chance on a driver linked to drugs.

Mayfield as a result fought city hall, and denied using any drugs banned by NASCAR. Mayfield even got his suspension lifted by a judge, and submitted a B-sample urine test, which tested positive for the same banned substance. Still to this day, Mayfield accuses NASCAR of committing one of the biggest conspiracies in the history of sports. Mayfield who has worked on getting back into racing since June of 2009, is finally getting ready to drive in lower-level stock car events, but a return to NASCAR seems impossible at this point.

As you can see, the past gave us plenty of reason to doubt that AJ Allmendinger would ever work his way back to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time, let alone go on to fulfill what was his preconceived destiny — becoming a winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

For the last two years, Allmendinger had fought hard to restore his image. He completed NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program in late 2012, and since then he’s been clawing tooth and nail to show he can still get the job done behind the wheel of a stock car, even one that had a lack of sponsorship dollars behind it. Allmendinger finished 16th-or-better in his first four races behind the wheel of James Finch’s No. 51 Chevrolet in 2013. This led to an opportunity at JTG Daugherty Racing, who needed a replacement for Bobby Labonte who was ailing from broken ribs suffered in a bicycle accident. With Allmendinger behind the wheel of the No. 47 car, performance of the fledgling race team instantly improved.

By season’s end, JTG Daugherty Racing was announcing AJ Allmendinger as their full-time driver for the 2014 season.

“To be able to go through all that and come out the other side, and I’m so thankful last year for James Finch and Roger Penske and my great friend Michael Shank for all the opportunities they gave me to be in a race car and live some dreams out like racing in the Indy 500 and be able to win for Roger and get my picture on his wall so it looks like I’ve actually been there, but more importantly to come here and have Tad and Jodi and Brad say, you know what, we’re going to take a chance on him, and we think he’s going to make this race team better,” Allmedinger stated proudly.

Sunday, after more than two years of self-inflicted hell, Allmendinger had his chance at redemption, and he capitalized.

Allmendinger scored a win at Watkins Glen International, but the victory wasn’t handed to him on a silver platter. The California native had to hold off one of the world’s best drivers on a road course — Marcos Ambrose. Allmendinger and Ambrose raced harder for the win in the Cheez-it 355 than any pair of drivers we’ve seen battle for a win all year. Fenders rubbed, and paint was exchanged as both drivers vied for a spot in NASCAR’s new Chase For The Sprint Cup format, which basically rewards race winners with a chance at capturing the championship.

Despite being pushed out of the groove by Ambrose in turn five with two laps remaining, Allmendinger hung tough. Heading into turn six, Ambrose still hadn’t shaken off Allmendinger, and heading off of turn seven with the white flag in sight Allmendinger was running away with the lead.

“I got through the bus stop and I got a little loose through there and I knew I kind of checked myself up, and as I said, he could have probably drove through me and cleared me out, but he just moved me enough to get that car on the bottom that he needed, but I was able to hold the outside of him and knew I had the next corner and I kind of leaned on him getting into the left‑hander, just know that if I can make him drive in deep with me, and I can make the corner and he messes it up, if they get racing behind me, and I get a three‑, four‑car‑length gap, you know I have a good shot at this thing,” Allmendinger explained, “Once I came off the last corner, I looked in my mirrors and saw them side by side and it was like the most perfect sight I had ever seen in my life.  I just knew I needed one perfect lap there.”

As he crossed the line for his first-career Sprint Cup Series win, Allmendinger let off a sequence of war screams. In an instant the weight of the world, which he placed on his own shoulders with a bad choice three years ago was lifted.

AJ Allmendinger can now say he is one of 184 drivers who have driven their car into victory lane in the most prestigious racing series in North America. But that accomplishment pales in comparison to what Allmendinger proved to everyone can be achieved when you accept that you’ve made a mistake, and you buckle down and do what’s asked to correct your mistake. Now Allmendinger is a humble race car driver, who is steadfast on improving his craft.

“I learn every day.  I try to get better every day.  I’m sure they’ll attest to you, there’s certain days it’s not good,” Allmendinger stated honestly,  ”I’m still not where I want to be.”

Even if Allmendinger has a ways to go to fulfill what he expects of himself behind the wheel, on Sunday he proved that for NASCAR drivers there is life after the Road to Recovery program.

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About Toby Christie

Toby Christie is the Senior Writer for Rubbings Racing. He has been watching NASCAR since 1993, and has covered the sport as a media member since 2007. Toby is a proud member of the NMPA. Additionally, Toby is a lifelong Miami Dolphins fan, subpar guitarist and he is pretty good around a mini-golf course.

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