Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Deuces Wild: Allmendinger released from Penske, Hornish in No. 22, but for how long?

Allmendinger was released from Penske Racing today.
Photo Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
In January, during the Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, Penske Racing's newest driver AJ Allmendinger remarked that taking over the No. 22 from veteran driver Kurt Busch was the best Christmas gift he could have ever received. He joked that it hadn't felt "real" until he'd put on his Penske Racing Hugo Boss polo that morning. It was at that moment it felt like all his stars had aligned. -- And they had, for a few fleeting months.

Just eight months after joining the Penske organization, Allmendinger finds himself fighting for his NASCAR career; all stemming from a positive drug test taken after the Kentucky Speedway event in late June. Although Allmendinger has agreed to complete the NASCAR Road to Recovery Program and take the necessary steps required to have his indefinite suspension from NASCAR revoke, he's without the backing of a team owner or a sponsor. 

Penske Racing announced Wednesday morning that they were releasing Allmendinger from his one-year contract and that Sam Hornish Jr., who has driven the Shell Pennzoil Dodge since the suspension was handed down, would remain as its driver for the foreseeable future. In a statements released by the organization Roger Penske said, "We have invested greatly in AJ and we were confident in his success with our team. The decision to dismiss him is consistent with how we would treat any other Penske Racing team member under similar circumstances. As AJ begins NASCAR’s ‘Road to Recovery’ program, we wish him the best and look forward to seeing him compete again in NASCAR.”

At this time we don't know what exactly the substance was that Allmendinger tested positive for other than it was an amphetamine (stimulant). Tara Ragan, Vice-President of Walldinger Racing has said that Allmendinger's results were "within nanograms of accepted standards" which NASCAR denies. In the court of public opinion the driver who many thought would get his first victory in 2012 is tainted by scandal and that's the last thing sponsor Shell/Pennzoil wants associated with their brand.

Shortly after accepting his deal with Penske, Allmendinger said, "Where I'm at and the level of my career, it's do or die. This is the next step to try to be one of those top Sprint Cup drivers, and that's what I want to do." Will he have that chance to compete in NASCAR again and if so can he find a competitive ride in a sport where start and parks are becoming more common? The long term effects of the suspension are speculation at this point, but it's hard to imagine sponsors and owners will be lining up to welcome him back with open arms. Allmendinger's open-wheel background could be his saving grace, affording him the option to leave NASCAR altogether, but even that is a long ways off.

It's now up to Sam Hornish Jr. to pilot the No. 22. Is Hornish the right man for the job and how long will he be the go-to guy? Penske remarked before the beginning of the season that he hadn't done his due diligence with Hornish in the past, moving him up into the Cup Series prematurely. In Hornish's initial foray into the Sprint Cup Series, driving for Penske from 2007-2010, he competed in 108 races yet only earned eight top-10 finishes, leading just 55 laps and failing to finish 16 races. Based on these statistics it would be difficult to justify Hornish taking over one of the top rides in the sport on more than an interim basis, but stranger things have happened. Hornish currently competes full-time for Penske in the Nationwide Series and sits forth in points.

So, who takes over the double deuce in 2013? The list of competitive drivers is short with most locked into long-term contracts. Although Ryan Newman doesn't have a contract or sponsorship I don't see him returning to Penske. Brian Vickers could be on the short list, but Penske didn't give him a shot when Busch left so it's probably a safe bet he won't be a contender for the ride next year. In addition, some seem to think he's working on a full time deal with MWR. Although nothing is confirmed for Kenseth to head to Joe Gibbs Racing the rumor mill has been putting him there since he announced his departure from Roush Fenway. Call me crazy, but I'd like to see Kenseth and Keselowski team up. Can you imagine the fun at the morning meetings and the sarcasm laced comments flying between the two? This gets my vote based on its pure entertainment value, and hey Penske's gonna be Ford in 2013 so no one would call into question Kenseth's manufacturer loyalty. But my pick beyond all others would be Trevor Bayne. Since joining NASCAR Bayne has been given the short straw and it would be nice to see what he could do with top notch equipment and a loyal sponsor in Shell/Pennzoil. You can argue that he's had top notch equipment while with Roush, but being the number 5 guy (behind Edwards, Biffle, Kenseth, and Stenhouse) isn't the same as being number 2 (or in this case 22) guy behind only Keselowski. An all around nice guy with a squeaky clean image, Bayne is exactly the type of guy Penske and the No. 22 team need in their corner after two years of turmoil.

Have an opinion? Leave it in the comments below.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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