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AJ Allmendinger better for drama

Tools

By Ngozi Ekeledo

DAYTONA, Fla. ( David Newton / ESPN.com) -- AJ Allmendinger felt trapped in a nightmare a year ago when NASCAR suspended him for failing a drug test hours before the July 7 Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway.

There were times during the ensuing months when he wondered if life was worth living, having tarnished his reputation and losing the best opportunity of his career at Penske Racing for what he calls a "stupid mistake."

He wouldn't wish what he went through on his worst enemy.

He also wouldn't go back to change a thing.

Career-wise, Allmendinger would be in a better position if he could turn back the clock and turn down a friend's nonprescribed Adderall pill he says got him into trouble. But in terms of his mental health and general happiness, the suspension was the best thing that ever happened to him.

"As weird as it sounds, not that I ever want to go through that again or I ever wanted to go through that … on a personal basis, I wouldn't go back and change it," Allmendinger says.

So what looked like a loss a year ago he has turned into a win, much bigger than the victory Allmendinger earned on June 22 at Road America in a Penske Racing Nationwide Series car.

Not that the road-course victory wasn't big. It was the best way Allmendinger could tell team owner Roger Penske "thank you" for giving him a second chance.

But wins on the track are a temporary high.

Allmendinger is high on life for the first time in a long time.

"I feel like I won as a person because I gained the strength and have become a lot better person for it," Allmendinger says. "I've shown people you can make a mistake, and if you fight hard, you can come back from it and people will give you a second chance."

Second chances are common in other sports. Not so much in NASCAR, particularly when it comes to a failed drug test involving a competitor driving in close quarters at close to 200 mph.

It's about trust.

When Jeremy Mayfield received a temporary injunction that would allow him to return from a failed drug test in 2009, drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson filed affidavits questioning for safety reasons whether they would compete with somebody who had tested positive.

There were no such worries with Allmendinger, in part because he completed NASCAR's Road to Recovery program to earn reinstatement and in part because there is something in his personality that makes people trust him.

"The biggest thing I wanted when I came back was to make sure the teams and drivers respected and trusted me," Allmendinger says. "They have to."

Allmendinger has gotten closer to fellow competitors since his return. He's gone from a driver who kept to himself, afraid to ask for help when struggling because he considered that a sign of weakness, to one able to share everything.

"Let's be honest," Allmendinger says. "When all your walls have been torn down, you don't have anything to hide, anyway."

Allmendinger's world used to be all about walls. He lived in a world that was so confined, so focused on racing and nothing else, that it was almost impossible to be happy.

The suspension ripped down those walls.

"As the process started, it was more of getting kind of life situation, priorities, looking outside of racing, what I needed to be happy," Allmendinger says. "I had made racing my top priority and often at times my only priority to the detriment of the rest of my life."

Even last year, after getting his dream job with Penske Racing, Allmendinger was unhappy. A bad performance on Sunday turned into a week's worth of misery.

The suspension made Allmendinger look at what he needed to be happy. There was a short time, away from the track for the first time in his career, when he wondered if he even wanted to race again.

"I had to look at things and say, 'OK, racing is gone right now. It may never come back. I need to focus on me and be happy, so if it does come back I don't just keep making the same mistakes over and over again,'" Allmendinger says. "Not making a mistake of what happened to get the suspension, but just the daily mistake of making racing the only thing I cared about and making myself miserable through that."

Allmendinger did things the right way. He went through NASCAR's recovery program, not so much because it was an admission of guilt but because it was the only path back to racing. He worked on his mental health, understanding that was the bigger issue.

He also got away from those around him who weren't always the best influence and surrounded himself with a strong support system.

Penske was the strongest.

The support the 76-year-old owner showed not only helped the 31-year-old driver, but it also helped show other owners and potential sponsors that the driver deserved another shot.

Penske was as much a friend as he was a boss, particularly in the beginning.

"He wasn't, 'OK, what's your next step in racing?'" Allmendinger says. "It was, 'What's your next step in life? What can I help you with? What can I do to help you become better?'

"He was a guy I could call at any time to ask questions or bounce things off, a guy that I knew was a true friend. That's what meant so much to me."

Penske publicly said from the outset that he would give Allmendinger a second chance, whether it was in NASCAR or IndyCar. That was more than enough to convince James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Racing, to put Allmendinger in his Cup car for four races late last season.

"Roger Penske is the one that fired him, and he's the one that helped get him back in the sport," Finch says. "That says a lot."

Allmendinger's attitude also said a lot to Finch.

"He said, 'Hey, I screwed up. Call me stupid if you want to,'" Finch says. "He didn't start crying or whining, 'They did this to me.' He went from top to bottom and started climbing back up with a smile on his face.

"So you have to respect that."

Getting back into a stock car so soon after the suspension was bigger than it appeared at the time.

"If I hadn't and gone through the whole offseason having not been in a race car and wondered if I ever would, that would have been very hard," Allmendinger says.

That led to Finch offering Allmendinger a chance to split time with Regan Smith in the No. 51 this season.

From there, it seems the floodgates have opened.

Penske put Allmendinger in an IndyCar at Birmingham and Long Beach, which led to the lifetime dream of competing in the Indianapolis 500, where he started fifth and finished seventh.

He put Allmendinger in a Nationwide car and was rewarded with the victory at Road America.

Now Allmendinger is getting a tryout for JTG Daugherty Racing, replacing 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte for a handful of races in addition to driving for Finch through the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

But most important, Allmendinger is at peace with himself.

"Other people can't help you if you don't want the help," he says. "In a way, I denied it. I just kept trying to fight through it each weekend going, 'Hey, all it takes is a big run or a victory and then I'll be happy.'

"But that lasts half a day, and then you're back to reality again. It's that stuff I've learned [since the suspension] and work on every day."

Allmendinger doesn't know what the future holds, whether he'll get an offer from JTG, Penske in a Cup, Nationwide or Indy car or another owner in NASCAR.

"First, if Roger Penske offered me a full-time ride, no matter whether it's IndyCar or Cup or Nationwide, I'd be stupid not to take it," Allmendinger says. "Working for Roger Penske is one of the best things in the world."

The key is Allmendinger has done everything to give himself another opportunity, something he and few others could imagine six months ago.

"Three months ago, I was focused on just a general daily life of working out and being happy and figuring that stuff out," Allmendinger says.

He's figured that stuff out and more. You can hear it in his voice and see it in the way he carries himself.

"Yeah, he's happy," says Finch, who believes Allmendinger has the talent to be a top driver. "The guy deserves it. I'd be real surprised if he falls on his butt."

That's why, as much as what happened a year ago hurt, Allmendinger wouldn't change a thing.

"I guess those chapters [moving forward], we'll write them as they go," he says. "Right now, I'm living it like life, one day at a time, one weekend at a time.

"It's great, and there's no reason to change it."


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