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Can AJ Allmendinger make the grade as the new driver of Penske Racing’s No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge in 2012?

If tenacity, desire and will–together with great talent–have anything to do with it, the Penske Racing team has a new winner to replace departed Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and 24-race winner.

The 30-year-old driver from Los Gatos, CA–currently residing in the Mooresville, NC area with wife Lynne–has had grand successes in auto racing but in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, the grand stage of stock car racing, he’s had a difficult time, never having the stability that’s essential to succeeding.

Allmendinger, named for A.J. Foyt Jr by his race-loving parents, first showed his innate skills in karting. I remember watching him at the Stars of Karting event at Bryan Herta’s track outside Las Vegas in late 2000, where he was a member of Paul Tracy’s team. Allmendinger did not win that event, but he did secure two IKF karting titles that helped propel him to the Barber Dodge Pro Series.

The Dinger won the Barber Dodge championship in his rookie 2002 season, putting a wheel wrong only once, in the Road America race. I recall watching the poor Barber Dodge mechanics digging dirt from inside his stricken race car and labeling it “Mount Allmendinger,” with flag affixed and all.

Allmendinger went to New Zealand as a Team USA Scholarship winner in 2002 and scored one pole and four top-four results flying the Team USA colors. From there he conquered the 2003 Toyota Atlantic championship, at that time the longest-lived ladder championship on American shores, winning Rookie of the Year honors simultaneously as he drove for Carl Russo’s RuSport Racing.

Both the team and Allmendinger graduated to the Champ Car World Series in 2004, and the driver again took Rookie of the Year honors, thanks to a run of six top-six results as the season came to its close; he beat out Briton Justin Wilson for the award. Wilson became Allmendinger’s teammate in 2005 but in June of 2006, RuSport replaced the Californian with Cristiano da Matta, the 2002 CART champion recently returned from Formula 1.

Forsythe Championship Racing quickly picked up The Dinger and he rewarded them with three consecutive race wins and a total of five overall in the 2006 season. And then Team Red Bull, for whom Allmendinger should have been driving in F1–instead of Scott Speed–came calling with a lucrative offer to go to Cup.

Allmendinger started his NASCAR career late in 2006 in the Craftsman Truck Series, where he drove for Bill Davis Racing, making three starts and earning a best finish of fifth–in his second race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He drove the No. 84 Sprint Cup Red Bull Toyota entry, beginning full-time in 2007, but it was a learning experience for both team and driver. He did much of the “Car of Tomorrow” grunt work as the season progressed and ran some select Truck races for Toyota as he learned the big differences between open wheel and NASCAR trucks and race cars.

Eventually, Allmendinger got canned from the Red Bull squad in favor of Speed–who was released a couple of years later after his own sub-par results. The two-time former open wheel champion eventually landed at Richard Petty Motorsports after it merged with Gillett Evernharm Motorsports following the 2008 season.

Allmendinger’s best Cup season is the one just ended, where he finished 15th for the year, just three places from the possibility of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup NASCAR playoffs. RPM put Greg Erwin on the pit box starting with the 2011 Brickyard 400 and that pairing led to Allmendinger’s late-season surge of six top-10 results.

No doubt Allmendinger’s skills in working with his new crew chief influenced Roger Penske and Tim Cindric when it was time to choose who would succeed Busch after their six-year run together.

Cindric and Allmendinger got together before the close of the year to talk about their new liaison in Cup racing and how they got to this point, what it means and where they go from here. Not only do they have a new driver in Allmendinger, but Penske Racing needed to secure a new crew chief for the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge and chose to promote Todd Gordon from the Nationwide ranks.

Cindric knows it’s a tough row to hoe, with so many changes occurring within the organization since the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedwy. “To go through [these changes] and have a different crew chief and a different driver going into next year, when it really wasn’t the plan starting the year,” that’s going to be tough for the team.

They’re also–as is every NASCAR Sprint Cup team–dealing with the intricacies of changing from carburetors to electronic fuel injection for fuel delivery on the Dodge engines, so they need both driver and crew chief that are used to making informed decisions on the fly.

“We certainly wanted to be sure that we made the right decision,” Cindric said, “and sometimes you need more time to try and understand what the landscape (ahead) looks like.”

With the volatility of Richard Petty Motorsports, which lost the No. 43’s Best Buy sponsorship to Roush Fenway Racing after the close of the year, Allmendinger was relieved to land at a group as stable as Penske Racing after “the things I”ve been up against basically my whole five years in the Sprint Cup Series,” Allmendinger related. “To find an organization that has stability and obviously the whole Penske organization has a ton of stability and great sponsors, walking through the shop, just the way everything is laid out and presented is absolutely amazing and something I’d never seen before,” he allowed.

Allmendinger never expected to be in this situation after the race at Homestead; he fully expected to remain with RPM in the coming season. “It wasn’t something that, for me, it was easily made,” he said of the decision to ask for his release from RPM in order to join Penske Racing. “I love the race team, my guys over at Richard Petty Motorsports, and just felt like we’ve built such good chemistry over the last four to five months of the season, to get to this point was a tough challenge.

“But at the same point, looking at an organization and where I”m going and the people that surround it, also made the decision a little bit easier because I knew that this was a great place to be,” he said of Penske Racing. “I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around it,” he said of the quick change of venues. “As tough as the decision was to make, I’m happy to be here.”

With Speed Weeks at Daytona less than a month and a half away, “I think that AJ is really going to lean on Brad (teammate Keselowski) to try and understand wht it takes to move into this organization and be successful,” Cindric pondered, “and I think Brad is committed as a teammate to help him get up to speed as soon as possible because he’s certainly shown that he’s committed to making that happen. There’s really no better place to do that than Daytona, where you’ve got to work together from the beginning.”

Cindric and Roger Penske had many choices in the merry-go-round that is the driver marketplace at the end of each season. “We had to look at potential,” Cindric

admitted. “I think that we considered virtually everybody that was out there and made sure that we did our due diligence to try and understand if there was anything in the landscape that we didn’t know or that wasn’t obvious,” he said.

“AJ was someone we had talked to over the years but he really wasn’t somebody that we considered until really almost the 11th hour. There was noise about the fact that they might not be able to make things work (at RPM). And when we sat down and looked at the guys that were available and at AJ – the on-track performance, if you look at it, there’s nobody there that has a better progression through his career. When you look at the slope of the curve there with the way his statistics are, certainly no one has that type of slope.”

And so AJ Allmendinger goes from one legend’s lair (Richard Petty) to another’s, Roger Penske. He realizes that this opportunity–much like the one he accepted in working with Forsythe Championship Racing back in 2006–offers him the chance to show just how good he can be in a Penske Dodge.

“I’m going to be smiling showing up to the racetrack every weekend,” Allmendinger said. “This is what I love to do and if I wasn’t smiling, I shouldn’t be driving race cars. It’s going to be pretty special and to have Mr Penske just around the racetrack talking to me, just being able to be around him, it’s more of an honor to drive for him. I love the history of racing in general and obviously, Mr Penske has a rich history in racing. It’s going to be just fun being at the racetrack, being a part of his organization and being around him more than anything. That’s something I really look forward to.”

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