Monday, June 24, 2013

Return of the Dinger

The Dinger Is Back
Eighteen months ago, I was just starting out with this blog and A.J. Allmendinger was on top of the world.  He had signed a contract to race in Sprint Cup for Roger Penske and had just driven a dramatic three-hour stint to close out the 24-Hours of Daytona sports car race and help win the first big event of the year. 

This “Could be the Year of the Dinger” I wrote.

We all know how that worked out.  Allmendinger started the NASCAR season with promise, but then the team seemed to lose its way.  Not only that, Dinger ran afoul of the NASCAR substance abuse policy.  It was handled poorly, he was slow to respond and when he did, it was with excuses that most people didn’t believe or ignored.  On the other hand, car owner Penske reacted quickly, cutting Allmendinger loose even after he had entered NASCAR’s rehab program.   

From the top of the heap to the bottom in less than a year.  But while most people figured Allmendinger's career was over, a hand reached out from a most unlikely place.  Roger Penske.  He called just to see how Dinger was doing.  Then he checked in again.  And again.  And finally he called to offer Allmendinger a ride in a couple of IndyCar races, where the Dinger had made an impressive start before moving to NASCAR.  The results have been mixed.  But even before he led the Indy 500 for a few laps, Penske offered another opportunity in a couple of Nationwide events.

Allmendinger's win in Saturday’s Road America Nationwide race was dominating.  He qualified on the pole and led more than half the event.  He did it with class and style.  After being punted out of the lead by Billy Johnson, Allmendinger came back with just the right amount of nudge that allowed him to regain the lead and coast to the win.

Afterwards, an emotional Allmendinger made it clear who deserved credit for the victory. 

“What Roger has done for me, career wise, is great,” he said.  “But personally, it’s meant a lot more to me, just making sure, that even after it happened last year, just making sure I was ok.  I wouldn’t have thought twice if he would have just wrote it off and not called and went on.  He’s got so much going on in his life.  But he just kept checking up on me.  I didn’t expect anything from it.  It was just nice to have a friend, somebody I could bounce ideas off of, life ideas, and just figure out where I was going. 

“Everybody on this race team, this organization, from top to bottom, they’ve never looked down on me, or put me aside or treated me differently or anything like that.  When I came back, I felt like they wanted me back, and the IndyCar side, they wanted me back.  And here (Nationwide), as soon as I showed up for the test at VIR, everyone seemed excited.   It’s just meant the world to me and this is the only way I could repay him.”

Allmendinger has got himself caught up in an ugly situation with the No. 47 Cup car, the team bouncing between him and regular driver Bobby Labonte for a “second opinion” on why the car has struggled this year.  Most agree Labonte is at the end of the line, but it will still be tough for Allmendinger to replace him, as Labonte is one of the most well-liked drivers in the garage.

But regardless of what happens with the 47 car, it’s nice to have the Dinger is back.

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