AJ Allmendinger has found himself at a potential career crossroads.
Fired by Roger Penske on August 1, Allmendinger is now in a new position. Having always been the up-and-coming talent, both in American open-wheel racing and later in NASCAR, AJ now finds himself labeled as tainted goods due to the failed drug test that has caused Penske and Shell to pull the plug on his Sprint Cup dreams.
The Dinger has taken all of the right steps so far to get his career righted, enrolling in the NASCAR road to recovery program as soon as it was offered. However, the stigma of the failed test will likely keep Allmendinger out of top flight equipment in NASCAR, even if he is able to secure reinstatement from the powers that be.
Looking at the matter strictly from a business perspective, one has to wonder if Randy Bernard would like to see an INDYCAR team roll the dice and bring AJ back into the open-wheel fold. The move would no doubt serve as a lightning rod for both criticism and praise as Allmendinger would be simultaneously viewed as both the next great American hope for open-wheel racing and a pariah to be avoided at all costs.
The one undeniable fact, though, is that Allmendinger would bring attention to a sanctioning body looking to move the needle and TV ratings.
A quick look at the available seats for the coming year shows that Allmendinger could have some fantastic prospects should he decide to return to INDYCAR competition.First and foremost among them is the team that Allmendinger co-owns with Michael Shank. Engine shortages have left the MSR entry in dry dock all season, but one would think that with Allmendinger on board an engine deal could be secured. The main question for this duo would be attracting sponsorship, definitely no easy task in this economy in the first place and obviously made harder by AJ’s recent issues.
As reported by Marshall Pruett of speedtv.com, Graham Rahal has decided to execute his opt-out clause for next year and shop his sponsor NTB around the paddock. Why he would choose to leave one of the powerhouse teams is a mystery at the moment, but pilots will no doubt be lined up to audition for his seat. Ganassi has expressed interest in Allmendinger in the past and Chip has never seemed to be bothered by negative media, so he could prove to be a good landing spot.
Ryan Briscoe has endured two brutal seasons at Penske as teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves have had great success. Ryan has garnered only a single win in the last two years while Power has dominated the Series and Helio has rebounded to his IRL form. Briscoe’s downturn has unfortunately coincided with a contract year, leaving him in a precarious position. Penske has been high in his praise of AJ even during these trying times, showing an almost fatherly concern for AJ’s well-being going forward. Could the Dinger be a possibility in one of the Captain’s cars? A long shot for sure, but as AJ himself has often been quoted, you never say never.
Oriol Servia and Justin Wilson find themselves in contract years as well, but both drivers are so highly regarded inside their own haulers that it is hard to imagine their teams letting them go. Wilson seems to be forever on a one year contract, but unless he is courted by Ganassi or Penske it is hard to imagine Dale Coyne letting the only driver to ever win for him escape again.
EJ Viso has yet to turn the corner in his INDYCAR career, and while his penchant for destroying expensive pieces of carbon fiber has subsided in 2012, his results have still lagged behind expectations. One has to wonder how much more patience KV Racing will have in the Venezuelan. Today’s racing climate revolves around sponsorship, though, and Viso’s CITGO money will likely speak louder than his results. While Kevin Kalkhoven has familiarity with AJ dating back to their respective days in Champ Car, it’s unlikely that he would pass on the highly funded Viso to take a flyer on Allmendinger. Kalkhoven’s gambling side was showcased this year when he brought ex-F1 ace Rubens Barrichello to INDYCAR, so it’s always possible that he could use the same strategy with Allmendinger.
A dark horse in a potential bid for Allmendinger could actually be AJ’s namesake, Mr. Foyt. According to a Wind Tunnel segment two weeks ago, Foyt has expressed a high level of interest in bringing the Dinger back to open-wheel racing. The pair seems to be somewhat of an odd couple at first blush, but Foyt’s hard-nosed ways could be a good change of pace for Allmendinger in a possible return to INDYCAR. Foyt also brings longtime sponsor ABC Supply to any potential deal, perhaps easing the burden of finding a company willing to pair itself with an athlete so recently removed from negative press. Mike Conway has done well for Foyt this season, but AJ’s desire to revisit victory lane could cause him to resort to drastic measures to attain his goals.
Allmendinger has more wins than all of the drivers named above except for Briscoe and Wilson, and he earned them in far fewer starts (40) during his time in Champ Car. As a gregarious American with immense talent behind the wheel, AJ would seem to be a good bet for an INDYCAR owner wanting to make a splash in 2013.
The question now is whether AJ decides to try and claw his way back up the NASCAR food chain or take a shot at returning to his roots in open-wheel racing.