Category archive: AJ Allmendinger

FONTANA, Calif. -- Finding the Phoenix Racing hauler used to be easy when arriving at Auto Club Speedway -- or any Sprint Cup track.

Just go to the back of the garage and count forward.

In case you didn't know, haulers are parked according to where teams rank in owner points. Before this season, the single-car team out of Spartanburg, S.C., never had been ranked higher than 23rd after more than one race.

Now it's tied for seventh.

"I can tell you there's a lot of people who came looking for us that went down there and had to come back this way," general manager Steve Barkdoll said with a laugh.

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AJ Allmendinger
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesPhoenix Racing has taken the tag-team approach with three different drivers: AJ Allmendinger (51), Regan Smith and Austin Dillon.

And get this: James Finch's No. 51 team, which gets its Chevrolet engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, ranks ahead of four other teams with the same equipment and all three Richard Childress Racing cars that field Chevrolets.

"Don't think we haven't noticed," an executive from one of those other organizations told me last week at Bristol.

HMS's Kasey Kahne ranks ninth and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon is 22nd. Stewart-Haas Racing's Tony Stewart is 25th, Ryan Newman is 24th and Danica Patrick is 30th.

RCR's Paul Menard is 11th, Kevin Harvick is 19th and Jeff Burton is 26th.

Did I mention that the Furniture Row team that gets its engines from RCR is 18th? That's nine spots behind the Phoenix Racing team that Kurt Busch said was not on par with the Denver-based organization when he left late last season.

And Phoenix has been able to do this with three different drivers -- Regan Smith, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Dillon. It'll be four by the time the team gets to Richmond and puts Ryan Truex behind the wheel.

"For them to be where they are in points, not only with three different drivers, but just in general, is a real testament to what they're doing," Burton said.

And if Phoenix -- unsponsored this weekend -- could somehow stay in the top 12 after 26 races and become eligible for the owners' championship in the Chase?

"If they could be in the top 10, it would be one of the bigger upsets in NASCAR's history," Burton said.

Barkdoll credits part of the early success to the new car that is easier to build. Because most of the parts are stamped out and body builders don't have to waste countless hours rolling sheet metal, they can spend more time in other areas.

Barkdoll spent part of that time two weeks ago explaining to his crew of 18 that there's a different routine for getting on the track for practice.

"When you're 27th in points, you go to templates first," Barkdoll said. "You don't get on the track. They send out 25 cars in practice for the first part until they start coming off. So we had to prep ourselves to know that we've got to get ready and do different things."

He hopes that continues.

"We know we've got to stay on top of things to stay here," Barkdoll said. "But think about the head table [at the banquet] if we happen to stay up here and James Finch gets to be the owners' champion and they have to split the title."

Then Phoenix Racing would be easy to find.

LENOIR, N.C. -- I'm no Oprah, and apparently Jeremy Mayfield is no Lance Armstrong.

More than three and a half years after being suspended from NASCAR, on the eve of Thursday night's Oprah Winfrey television show in which Armstrong ends a decade of denying he used performance-enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France, Mayfield still insists he never took methamphetamine.

Athletes come clean all the time after years of denial -- Mark McGwire, Marion Jones and Alex Rodriguez to name a few.

Others have maintained their innocence despite the evidence.

Count Mayfield among those.

In this society of forgiveness, the 43-year-old driver has nothing to lose in the court of public opinion by confessing now. His racing career is in ruins even if he goes through NASCAR's recovery program necessary for reinstatement, and he's facing 19 felony charges from stolen goods and methamphetamine found in a November 2011 search of his North Carolina home.

Still, Mayfield remains adamant that he never took the illegal drug that resulted in his May 2009 suspension. He remains adamant that his positive test was the result of a false positive that came from mixing Adderall prescribed for attention deficit disorder and an over-the-counter drug for allergies.

He looked me in the eye on Wednesday outside the Catawba County Courthouse, where the case for his felony charges was pushed to March 4 as attorneys negotiated a possible plea bargain, and said it just as clear as he did in 2009.

"No Lance Armstrong moments coming up for me," Mayfield said.

You can decide whether Mayfield is telling the truth. The courts sided with NASCAR, and that isn't going to change.

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Jeremy Mayfield
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesJeremy Mayfield says he's willing to do what it takes to get back into NASCAR.

What has changed is Mayfield's attitude. Instead of fighting the system that has him in this seemingly never-ending nightmare, he's willing to embrace it.

His hair still spiked with gel, as it has been for years, he said he would do "whatever it takes" to get reinstated.

That now includes drug rehabilitation.

Only a week earlier, Mayfield said he would do everything short of drug rehabilitation to complete the recovery process. He said this because he doesn't believe it to be necessary because he denies ever using drugs.

Apparently, the realization that rehab might become necessary has become real.

That doesn't mean he'll pull an Armstrong and confess, though.

"I did admit to what I took," he said, reiterating the Adderall and Claritin-D scenario. "When I get there [rehab], it's going to be kind of boring."

Had he known what he does today, Mayfield might have entered NASCAR's Road to Recovery program in 2009. He said the string of events that landed him in court on Wednesday were probably why AJ Allmendinger, suspended last season, went through the program despite denying he knowingly did anything wrong.

Allmendinger, after losing his ride at Penske Racing, came back late last season to drive a few races for Phoenix Racing. He is scheduled for more this year.

See, it is a forgiving society.

And although society might be willing to forgive Mayfield, sponsors and team owners are another story -- particularly three and a half years out.

"I'm sure he wasn't going to take my path after what happened to me," said Mayfield of Allmendinger.

Mayfield made many accusations over the years as to how he wound up on this path. He accused NASCAR of setting him up with the felony charges he faces after he fought the system to the point of attacking the character of chairman Brian France.

He's past that now. He knows the least resistant path to reinstatement is to make amends. He recently called France on a live Motor Racing Network radio show and asked what it would take for him to be reinstated.

To France's credit, he took the call and told Mayfield he had to take the same path Allmendinger and others have.

Mayfield insists the call was sincere, that he wasn't trying to be confrontational or cause problems.

On that, I do believe him.

Mayfield is simply ready to move on and seek a second chance, whether that is in NASCAR's top series, where he has won five times, or at a lower level.

"Everybody loves a comeback story," he told me as he walked out of the courthouse.

This would be a big one. And if Mayfield goes through the process, if he is reinstated and proves he still has the talent to compete, he deserves that chance.

Chances are, in a sport built around the image of drivers and sponsors, he won't get it. But Mayfield is quick to remind us that some of the sport's biggest names -- team owners Rick Hendrick and Michael Waltrip, plus driver Tony Stewart -- have thrived after overcoming legal issues.

"A lot of people have been in trouble and are racing again," Mayfield said.

Mayfield is saying all the right things now. He says he and his wife, Shana, are doing well even though they had their house and property -- assessed at $3 million -- auctioned off in foreclosure for $1.7 million. He says he's finding enough odd jobs for them to "survive."

"It's been tough," he said. "But I feel like I'm a better person."

And according to him, he's an innocent person, saying there are others who have had careers ruined from false positive drug tests before and since him.

"I wanted them to realize it happens," he said, again explaining his long fight. "It happens every day."

Say and believe what you want about Mayfield, he is a fighter. He is willing to stand up for what he believes even if most of the world doesn't believe him.

"I can take it," Mayfield said just before heading for his white Ford pickup parked outside the courthouse. "I can take it. Lots of other people couldn't have."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Brad Keselowski was right three weeks ago when he said the failed drug test by Penske Racing teammate AJ Allmendinger was a "death sentence."

Team owner Roger Penske was right on Wednesday when he let Allmendinger go.

He had no choice, really.

In a world dictated by sponsors and perception, in a world where the participant is more of a danger to others than in arguably any other sport if under the influence of drugs, there is no room for violators of the substance abuse policy.

"Within the sport we rely on sponsors and reputation," Keselowski said at New Hampshire.

Allmendinger has neither now. It will be hard when he completes NASCAR's Road to Recovery program to find an owner or sponsor with a top-tier -- or maybe lower -- organization willing to give him a second chance unless we discover the form of amphetamines found in the test came from a supplement or over-the-counter drug.

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AJ Allmendinger
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesAJ Allmendinger on his future: "As I stated last week, I have begun NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and look forward to using those resources and its completion to compete again in NASCAR in the near future."

That isn't likely, according to Dr. David Black, the administrator of NASCAR's drug-testing program in Nashville, Tenn.

"Certainly, if that had been a possibility that would have been ruled out before any action was taken," Black told me last week. "On every positive test we have, we look to rule out the possibility of a supplement being involved.

"I'm not aware of any commercial products that would have influenced the test outcome."

Death sentence.

That Allmendinger has remained mostly mum, refusing to talk publicly since it was announced a few hours before the July 7 Daytona Cup race that he violated the policy, doesn't help his cause. If he doesn't defend himself, who will?

That he's never won a Cup race, had a DWI from a few years ago and was 23rd in points at the time of the failed test also doesn't help.

Allmendinger did issue a statement Wednesday, thanking Roger Penske, the sponsors and fans, and apologizing "for the distraction, embarrassment and difficulties that my current suspension from NASCAR has provided."

While NFL and NBA teams tend to forgive players who fail drug tests, there isn't nearly as much tolerance in NASCAR because of sponsors and reputation. Maybe that's why Jeremy Mayfield fought his suspension in 2009. He knew he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't.

Making the decision now was Penske's only choice. He simply could have let Allmendinger's one-year deal run out and signed somebody else for 2013, hoping the situation would go away quietly.

But as long as Allmendinger was under contract for this year there still would have been questions, which would lead to distractions.

Penske doesn't want or need distractions. He has Keselowski with three wins vying for a championship. He has a top sponsor in Shell Pennzoil that already went through an embarrassing situation when Kurt Busch was released following an embarrassing end to last season, opening the door for Allmendinger in the No. 22.

He also has the move from Dodge to Ford in 2013 that will involve possibly the sale of his engine department and the transition to Roush Yates engines.

The last thing Penske needed was weekly questions about what he'll do with Allmendinger if and when the driver is reinstated four or five months down the road.

So he made a clean break.

Now Penske can move forward trying to find a driver for the No. 22. Sam Hornish Jr. is the front-runner. He will drive in most -- if not all -- of the remaining races this year. If he does well, knowing Penske's fondness and loyalty to the three-time IndyCar champion, the ride likely is his.

If Hornish isn't the pick, Joey Logano could emerge as a candidate if Joe Gibbs Racing can't get him full sponsorship in Sprint Cup for next year. If sponsorship can't be found for Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas Racing, he could seek a return to the organization he left after the 2008 season to join SHR.

Brian Vickers perhaps is driving himself into candidacy with two top-5s in four races as a fill-in for Mark Martin at Michael Waltrip Racing.

Maybe with the move to Ford, Penske will turn to 2011 Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, who already plans to drive a full Nationwide Series schedule for Ford's Roush Fenway Racing and part time for the Wood Brothers in Cup in 2013.

As Penske said on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his phone is ringing off the hook. He has lots of options.

And no, as some of you insist on asking, bringing Busch back isn't one of them.

Penske also gave us a hint that Allmendinger's release was coming, reminding us that he lets go regular Penske Racing employees who fail a drug test. He reiterated that on Wednesday.

So this wasn't a surprise.

After all, Allmendinger already had been given the death sentence.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- I'm pretty sure Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ryan Briscoe said I was a great writer. I'm pretty sure Sprint Cup driver AJ Allmendinger said I was a combination of Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

You be the judge. Here's what they said when asked what they took away from Monday's media go-kart challenge in which the Penske Racing drivers were team captains for five hapless scribes and one IndyCar rep:

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Ryan Briscoe
AP Photo/LAT/Michael L. LevittTwo days after celebrating winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Briscoe was racing go-karts with the media in Charlotte.

"That maybe journalists can stick to journalism and drivers can stick to driving," Briscoe told me after I finished fourth out of six karts at Victory Lane Karting.

"That you've just got to get to a gym more," said Allmendinger after I complained that winner Nate Ryan of USA Today was 50 pounds lighter. "My dad does that to me, too. He says, 'Well, you're lighter.' Well, work out more. You can fix that yourself."

OK, after considering more carefully, I'm pretty sure they weren't trying to get on my good side.

And I think by that "dad" reference Dinger called me old, too.

It is true that I'm like Stewart in that I may need to lose some weight and that I don't get to the gym much more than NASCAR's most popular driver. It's also true that my writing skills outweigh my driving skills, although Kyle Busch might disagree judging by his "this is trash" comment earlier this season.

But the more important question: What did I get out of this test of man versus machine? A test, by the way, that was won by Team Briscoe despite my derriere, which fit tighter in the kart seat than most, thanks to a super-fast and super-light teammate in Ryan -- as in Nate, not Briscoe.

The top 10 things I learned:

• That it's more prestigious to win the pole for the Indianapolis 500 than for the Showdown for the Sprint All-Star weekend. Sorry, Dinger, not even close.

• That Allmendinger apparently doesn't want me to write good things about him. On the first restart -- which became necessary because Jenna Fryer of The Associated Press took off waaay before the green dropped -- Dinger told Jeff Gluck of SB Nation to pass me quickly because my kart would take off slow due to excess weight. And did I mention he's ruthless? He made Briscoe's wife, ESPN's Nicole Briscoe, his first selection of the media draft. "I think I'm in Briscoe's head a little bit," Dinger said.

• That the Australian-born Briscoe does a pretty bad Southern accent imitation, at least the one where he mocked NASCAR drivers and their terminology while Dinger was coaching his team with constructive criticism.

• That clean air and downforce don't matter in go-karts, particularly when you have another kart beating the heck out of your back bumper.

• That Nicole Briscoe looks better in Ryan's helmet than he does. Still waiting to see if Ryan looks better in Nicole's 6-inch stilettos she wore to the White House.

• That even in karts sometimes you have to go slower to go faster. Never quite figured out how to handle a couple of those hairpin turns, losing way too much speed sliding my fat rear end around.

• That wrecking really is more entertaining than long green-flag runs. Most fun I had all day was sending Fryer into the wall during practice.

• That restarts really are the craziest part of the race. There were more people trying to be Kyle Busch on the first three turns than the rest of the 10-lap race.

• That I have worse helmet hair than Kurt Busch.

• That Roger Penske probably won't be calling if he decides to add another Sprint Cup or IndyCar team to his stable, and that journalists really should stick to journalism and drivers to driving.