CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The first phase of his comeback complete, an optimistic AJ Allmendinger is ready to get on with his life.
He’s hopeful that includes another job in racing.
Allmendinger on Tuesday was reinstated by NASCAR, which said he successfully completed its rehabilitation program after testing positive for a banned substance. The process took a little over two months, and Allmendinger said he learned a lot about himself while participating in the “Road to Recovery” program.
“I knew I didn’t have a problem, I knew it was a one-time mistake,” Allmendinger told The Associated Press. “I’m going to use the word “educated” because I feel like I was educated on a lot of things and a lot of things about myself. I just needed to get my priorities straight and my life straightened out.
“And learn to be happy as a person away from the race track,” he added. “If you are not happy away from the race track, you aren’t going to be happy at the race track. So much of what I was doing at the race track was dictating the person I was.”
Allmendinger was suspended July 7 after failing a random drug test in June. His backup “B” urine sample also later tested positive.
NASCAR has not revealed the substance, but he has said he tested positive for Adderall, a prescription drug typically used to treat attention deficit disorder. He does not have an ADD diagnosis or prescription, and said he took it a couple of days before the June 30 race at Kentucky Speedway because he was tired.
He was released by Penske Racing after his “B” sample failed, and participating in NASCAR’s program was his only hope at reinstatement.
Now that he’s done it, he may find a home sooner than anyone expected back in July.
“The first thing is what options are out there for me? I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “But I’ve learned this is life, and everything is an option.”
Team owner Roger Penske had Allmendinger as his guest at the IndyCar season finale last weekend and said the 30-year-old driver is a viable candidate for rides in both NASCAR and IndyCar. Penske even said he’d consider hiring Allmendinger again.
Allmendinger said he was nervous to attend the race, in part because it was his first public appearance since the suspension and because he’d not been in the paddock since leaving Champ Car for NASCAR after the 2006 season. But he felt at ease as soon as he walked back into the track, and said he was welcomed by everyone from team owners to crew members to fans.
Allmendinger said there’s been interest from IndyCar teams, but he’s not sure what comes next.
“I don’t have a specific answer, I just know that it will be something I want to do,” he said. “But I also don’t want this to be the end of NASCAR. I don’t want to leave like that. I don’t want to feel like I failed.”
Allmendinger ran three seasons in Champ Car and won five races in 2006, right before he was lured to NASCAR by Red Bull Racing. But the team had no development program for him, and he struggled with the move to stock cars.
Red Bull let him go in less than two seasons, and Allmendinger had to fight every year for a ride and the track time to continue his development. The job of a lifetime finally came to him in late December, when Penske hired him to fill the seat that opened when Kurt Busch split with the organization.
It was the most prolific ride of Allmendinger’s career, and both driver and team seemed thrilled with the pairing even as Allmendinger struggled at times in the No. 22 Dodge. He was 23rd in the Sprint Cup Series standings heading into Daytona, where he won the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race in January.
The July suspension came at a time when Penske was evaluating picking up the option on Allmendinger for 2013. Sam Hornish Jr. was flown in to replace Allmendinger and will finish the season in the car, but Joey Logano was hired to drive it next season.
The next step for Allmendinger may be up to owners like Penske.
“He could be an option for us, for sure,” Penske said before the IndyCar finale at Auto Club Speedway on Saturday. “He’s someone we would consider. This is a speed bump in his career, but he’s certainly an option for people on the NASCAR side and the Indy side.”
Allmendinger said Tuesday he was grateful for the support he’s received from Penske the last two months.
“It was great to go to the IndyCar race and he’s been amazing and such a great friend through this, and he’s the guy I always wanted to please and my biggest regret is letting him down,” Allmendinger said. “I was always afraid to ask him for advice before, and when you’ve got everything taken away from you, your guard gets let down.
“Now, I’ll always turn to him.”
Penske doesn’t have an open seat in NASCAR, and it’s not clear what will happen with his third IndyCar team. He’s already picked up the 2013 options on Will Power and Helio Castroneves, but has told Ryan Briscoe he’s free to look around while the team tries to secure sponsorship for that seat.
Allmendinger was the second Sprint Cup Series driver suspended under NASCAR’s tightened drug policy implemented in 2009. Jeremy Mayfield was the first and he unsuccessfully sued to have the results overturned. Court documents showed that Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamine.
Allmendinger believes his situation is different.
“It was the biggest mistake of my life. Stupid mistake,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen again and the people who know me know it was a mistake.”
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