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Allmendinger returns to open wheel

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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SEBRING, Fla.

AJ Allmendinger’s career has nearly come full circle.

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On Tuesday, the 31-year-old racer’s journey led him back to familiar surroundings – Sebring International Raceway – for IndyCar testing with Penske Racing.

Allmendinger’s 10-hour drive from Charlotte, N.C., to central Florida on Monday offered him plenty of time to reflect on the past seven years. From the tremendous success he enjoyed during his last open-wheel season with Gerry Forsythe in 2006, where he won five of 13 races, to the challenges of acclimating to stock cars and searching for the right situation.

Dinger finally found the right situation last year with motorsports mogul Roger Penske. However, a lapse of judgment while partying before the Kentucky race in June followed by a positive drug test subsequently led to Allmendinger’s suspension and consequently cost him his NASCAR ride.

But Penske refused to give up on the affable Allmendinger. While he saw the driver’s promise in stock cars, he remembers the tremendous speed Allmendinger exhibited during his open-wheel days and more recently in Daytona Prototypes, including the 2011 Rolex 24 Championship.

Tuesday’s test session confirmed what Penske suspected.

“When you’re looking at a 52-second lap, really, I’m surprised that he’s that close, to be honest,” Penske president Tim Cindric said. “It’s just going to take some time for him to get used to all his braking points and gain his confidence and where to go, but he’s off to a good start.

“There’s a lot of places where he knows he can get better, so there’s really good potential there. And I think Helio (Castroneves) and Will (Power) are certainly looking forward to him being able to come out here and show them a few things, too, so that’s all good.”

After the morning session ended, Allmendinger was seventh of 13 drivers on the speed chart with a fast time of 52.549-seconds on the 1.7-mile circuit. Scott Dixon led the session with a lap of 52.017-seconds followed by Allmendinger’s Penske Racing teammate Power (52.153-sec.).

“It’s going alright,” Allmendinger said with a laugh. “I only feel like a half-hack out there right now. The first couple of runs I thought, ‘Oh, crap, this feels so fast’. And Will kept telling me, ‘Man, it’s not even like the Champ car. You’re fine.'

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“By my fifth lap, I thought I’d hustled the car pretty good. I looked at the dash to see what my lap time was. I knew what was fast around here, and it was like 3 seconds slower.

“It’s OK. I feel like the car is only half-driving me now. The first few runs, I thought it was totally driving me.”

While Allmendinger didn’t pick up as much time as he had hoped during the afternoon session, he was still well within competitive range. Takuma Sato jumped to the top of the sheet with a lap of 51.947 seconds, while Allmendinger shaved just 0.069 off of his best morning time. Still, Allmendinger was just 0.671 seconds off the fastest lap.

“I really wished I could have put up a faster time but it will come,” Allmendinger said. “Getting that last little bit out, that’s what makes these guys so good. But I’m at the best team so I don’t have to ask, ‘How much is me and how much is the car?’ It’s me. So, I’ll just keep working on it.

“When I talked with Roger earlier he seemed pleased by the progress. We’ll talk more about it on Monday. Right now, I’ll admit I’m beat. But I’ll go back to work and figure out what it takes to be stronger in these cars.”

It’s was clear that Allmendinger, who trains religiously, had quite the workout. It’s been a while since he drove a car sans power steering.

“Just the physical nature of what a stock car is compared to an Indy car – physically, the stock car is easier to drive,” Allmendinger said. “You have to prepare for the heat that’s in those cars and being in them for four hours and mentally wearing on you. And there are still a couple of places – Dover and Bristol -- that you get worn out. But for the most part, you’re not physically tired. You’re just hot and dehydrated.

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“These (Indy) cars are just physically hard to drive. I’ve been working out, lifting weights, especially in the offseason since Roger and I’ve been talking about this but you’re not going to simulate it.”

Allmendinger’s ability to recapture the skills of his younger days impressed Power, who posted the third fastest overall time of 52.153 seconds. When Dinger last competed against Power seven seasons ago, he finished third in the 2006 Champ Car standings — one position ahead of Power.

Allmendinger was second in points after the penultimate race at Surfer’s Paradise but didn’t compete in the season finale at Mexico City.

“He caught on very quickly,” Power said. “Within one set of tires he’s already really close. That’s impressive. Plus, he was pretty quick in Champ Car. I think he would have won the championship if he would have started with Forsythe in 2006 but he changed teams.

“That’s why we’re testing him. He is quick. We know that – and that’s good for us. We get all that data and if he’s quicker in a sector that just tells us where to find that speed. He’s also good with feedback as well.

“And he’s easy to get along with. He’s very funny. Helio (Castroneves) and I had dinner with him last night, we were laughing the whole time. He’s an easygoing guy – a lot of fun. And he’s American, so that’s great.”

Allmendinger also received a vote of confidence from his fellow Michael Shank Racing teammate Justin Wilson, who was testing with his Dale Coyne team. Wilson shared Power’s sentiment that Dinger is “just a really fun guy to be around, easygoing and obviously a fan favorite”. But Wilson also raced against Allmendinger in open wheel prior to teaming up to finish third in this year’s Rolex 24 before Shank was penalized following the event.

"He's quick as well and can back up all his kidding around off the track with the speed on the track,” Wilson added.

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If sponsorship can be secured for the race at Barber Motorsports Park on April 7, Allmendinger will participate in the open test at the Birmingham, Ala., circuit on March 12th and 13 to get up to speed for his IndyCar debut. Success in that race could lead to additional opportunities in both Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500.

“We don’t have anything yet for him, but it’s our intention in the next 30 days to try and put that together.” Cindric said. “The first thing to do today was to come out here and just get him familiarized with what these cars are, so that, if he is able to run a race or a test, he’ll be in position to understand what it is he needs—it won’t be so foreign to him.”

Allmendinger never took Penske’s loyalty for granted. “It always meant the world to me that Roger would want me back in one of his cars,” he says.
And while it might be difficult to understand why Penske Racing would offer Allmendinger a second chance after last season’s faux pas, Cindric feels it’s a no-brainer.

“Well, he’s a race driver, and he’s shown he can drive race cars,” Cindric said. “For us, that’s what our business is. You want to find the best drivers. With that, there’s always some give and take. We feel like, with his situation last year, there was a time where he understands what occurred there. He understands the mistakes he made. And he’s convinced us that’s a one-off situation.

“He’s paid his dues, and now it’s back to figuring out for us who’s the best person to put in the race car. We think our odds are pretty good there. With him, he’s in a position where he needs to figure out what the right thing is for his career, and for us, we’re looking for the best available race car driver, and he seems to fit that bill over here for now.”

On Friday, Allmendinger will visit his Phoenix Racing team at Daytona International Speedway. Although he has no plans to drive in the Daytona 500, he will spend time with his crew and representatives from Guy Roofing which will sponsor the No. 51 Chevy SS he is scheduled to drive at Phoenix International Raceway March 1-3. Allmendinger is also schedule to race in the Sprint Cup Series at Bristol, Fontana and Martinsville, but the latter would conflict with the Barber race.

“Right now, for me, I need to find the best opportunity – wherever that might be in whatever series,” Allmendinger said. “I want to be competitive. I want to have fun. Part of having fun is being competitive and being on a fun race team that enjoys having me around. And just be happy in general no matter what I’m doing. Happy off the race track with what I’m doing. Happy being at the racetrack in whatever race car I’m sitting in, knowing I’m going to be competitive.

“Obviously, if Roger says, ‘Here’s a full-time ride,’ I’m not going to be the idiot that turns it down and says, ‘No, I’m good.’ It’s just finding the best opportunity and the best place for me to be where I want to be in whatever series that is.”

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