Penske Racing officially announced this past Friday that AJ Allmendinger will pilot the #2 car in two races this season: the Honda Indy Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park in April and the Indianapolis 500 in May. Allmendinger will carry IZOD sponsorship in those two races, but Penske Racing President Tim Cindric left the door open for more races to be added to the Dinger’s schedule if sponsorship can be found.
Allmendinger also still has his sights set on NASCAR, at least for the time being, with a part-time ride for James Finch’s Phoenix Racing team. Initially announced for four races this season, with races at Phoenix, Bristol, Auto Club Speedway, and Martinsville, Allmendinger later saw the Martinsville round on the schedule go to Ryan Truex as he had sponsorship for that race. Similar situations at Phoenix Racing have accounted for Allmendinger missing out on the Daytona 500 (Regan Smith) and Las Vegas (Austin Dillon).
Both sides have reportedly agreed to “keep their options open,” which means that if someone with sponsorship shows up at the Phoenix Racing shop with a check then AJ is out of a ride. The silver lining on this cloud, though, is that it also gives AJ an easy route to return to his open-wheel racing roots.
As it stands right now, it appears that Allmendinger will run a split schedule of IZOD IndyCar Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup events this season. Although the March 24th season opener at St. Petersburg is already off the table due to NASCAR commitments, Dinger and any potential sponsors can potentially cherry pick several other races on the schedule. A closer look at the IndyCar and NASCAR schedules reveals some interesting possibilities:
March 24 — Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Allmendinger is already scheduled to run the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. that day, striking any possibility of a true full-season effort at race one. (Probability: Very low)
April 7 — Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama: Allmendinger will make his IZOD IndyCar Series debut at this race. Ryan Truex will pilot the Phoenix Racing #51 at Martinsville. This is a big commitment from AJ since he garnered a 2nd-place finish at Martinsville last spring. (Probability: CONFIRMED)
April 21 — Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach: This race has been mentioned as a possible addition to AJ’s schedule. The STP 400 at Kansas Motor Speedway runs concurrently, but Allmendinger has no commitment to run it as of yet. (Probability: High)
May 5 — Sao Paulo Indy 300: A long shot at best due to the increased costs associated with this round. NASCAR is at Talladega that week for the Aaron’s 499, meaning Dinger will likely be on the sidelines while Regan Smith drives the Phoenix entry. (Probability: Low)
May 26 — Indianapolis 500: Allmendinger will finally get to turn laps at the Speedway in an open-wheel car this May. The Coke 600 runs that same evening but it is likely not in Allmendinger’s plans as Roger Penske will likely want his whole attention to be on the Speedway and qualifying for the biggest race in all of motorsports. (Probability: CONFIRMED)
June 1-2 — Dual in Detroit: The Belle Isle double-headers compete with Dover on the NASCAR schedule. Allmendinger counts the Monster Mile as his best track in NASCAR competition, having led 152 circuits around the high-banked oval. But Roger Penske’s ties to the Belle Isle weekend could make this an attractive race to add to AJ’s schedule for Penske. (Probability: High)
June 8 — Firestone 550: The Saturday night race at Texas Motor Speedway produced some of the best racing on the schedule last year. The competing NASCAR race is on Sunday afternoon at Pocono. Allmendinger has had more success at TMS than Pocono, so this could be a good fit. (Probability: Medium)
June 15 — Milwaukee IndyFest: Competing against the NASCAR round in Michigan, this race is a sleeper to be added to Dinger’s schedule. Allmendinger ran three races at the Milwaukee Mile in Champ Car World Series competition, garnering top fives every race with a best finish of 2nd in 2005 for RuSport. (Probability: Medium)
June 23 — Iowa Corn 250: I would bet this race doesn’t end up on AJ’s schedule as his road course skills will more than likely net him a ride in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway that weekend. (Probability: Low)
July 7 — Pocono 400: The return of Pocono to the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule comes on the afternoon after the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Allmendinger is more than likely not going to be in the plans for Phoenix Racing at Daytona, meaning he could possibly make the second race of the Triple Crown. Penske might eye this race as well since it would be a boon for the series to have a larger field at this event. (Probability: High)
July 13-14 — Honda Indy Toronto: Allmendinger won at Toronto in 2006, making this a likely opportunity. NASCAR races in New Hampshire that weekend, a track that AJ has not had much success at. (Probability: Very high)
August 4 –Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio: Competes against the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono. Tough to call. (Probability: Toss-up)
August 25 — GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma: A road course race in Allmendinger’s home state of California goes against the night race in Bristol in NASCAR country. Allmendinger is slated to run the spring Bristol race for Finch, so his performance could give fans an inkling of what this weekend might have in store. It is also likely another driver could produce sponsorship for this marquee race, pushing Allmendinger out regardless of performance. Penske’s sterling track record at Sonoma should provide some extra enticement for AJ and any potential sponsors. (Probability: Medium)
September 1 — Grand Prix of Baltimore: Competes against the Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. AJ has had decent runs at Atlanta and, obviously, has yet to compete at Baltimore. (Probability: Low)
October 5-6 — Grand Prix of Houston: Open-wheel racing returns to Reliant Park for the first time since the Champ Car World Series visited in 2006 and 2007. With most of the drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series never having lapped this temporary circuit, Allmendinger could feel that he has a leg up on some of the competition. I look for AJ to add this race to his schedule rather than running the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas. (Probability: Medium)
October 19 — MavTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway: The IZOD IndyCar Series season finale and last leg of the newly revived Triple Crown takes place against the Talladega Superspeedway weekend. AJ has been quoted on numerous occasions as saying he hates the racing at Talladega, and with all the underpinnings on the IndyCar side I think this race will be an almost certainty to be added to the Dinger’s schedule. I would expect by this race we will already have a strong inkling of where Allmendinger plans to race full-time in 2014. (Probability: High)
Of course, all of this conjecture on my part is dependent on sponsorship. To garner it, AJ will have to continue to show that he is fully recovered from his drug test failure last year, all the while proving on the track that he is worthy of additional races. It’s going to be a busy year for the Dinger, one way or another — and keeping track of where he is racing will make it an interesting season for his fans.