How High Is The Bar?

The last time Roger Penske hired a partial season driver, expectations were not extremely lofty. Will Power was asked to fill in for Helio Castroneves during his infamous tax evasion court case. At the time, Penske was simply making assurances that his team would be in a position to run two cars in the event that Helio’s case would not be completed before the opening round in St. Petersburg. As it turned out, Penske was correct in retaining a third driver as Power was tapped to fill in for the embattled Castroneves during the race weekend.

Power finished a remarkable P6 before being displaced from his seat by freshly acquitted Castroneves On the eve of qualifying for round two at Long Beach two weeks later. Bad news for Power, a skilled racer who had competed in the entirety of 2008 as a transition driver for a transition team, only to lose his ride for 2009. Penske came to the rescue, signing the Australian driver to a six race deal to include the 500. Power repaid Rogers good-will with a win, two podiums, a P5 finish at Indy and a P9 at Kentucky before being injured during a practice accident during his final appearance of the year in Sonoma.

In the light of Will Power’s exceptional performances from 2009, Penske inked a full season deal with Power during the off-season for the coming 2010 championship. Power performed right when he needed to; you usually only get one chance with Roger Penske, and Power proved he belonged with the most successful team in American open-wheel history. Not only did he excel when the pressure was on, Power also set the bar for any future partial season deals with Penske extremely high.

I won’t get into the road that has led AJ Allmendinger to open-wheel racing for the second time in his racing career, but suffice to say he has stumbled into an eerily similar position as Power was four years ago. AJ, a down on luck driver grasping at the final ropes of his quickly fizzling career, has found himself as the third pilot at Team Penske as a partial season entrant. All because of the good-will of Roger Penske; who fired the driver from his NASCAR team amid controversy and has hired him to Team Penske in indycar.

Power had the advantage of a much more complete partial season deal with Penske, years of open-wheel experience to draw upon and had contested the 2008 season with KV Racing. His win that season happened during five of his seven races that year. AJ has a two races; Barber and Indianapolis. And a good finish at Indy, say a P5 like Power during his partial season, could easily bring enough cash and sponsorship to fund his appearance at a few more rounds of the season.

Allmendinger isn’t light on open-wheel experience himself. After becoming a good ‘ol NASCAR boy, it’s easy to forget his 2003 Atlantics championship season. It’s nearly as easy to gloss over his 11 top fives in 27 rounds during his two full seasons with Champ Car team RuSPORT and his meteoric rise to the top once he jumped to Forsythe halfway through the 2006 season, racking up five wins in nine rounds before abandoning the team for a deal with the Red Bull NASCAR operation.

The seven years spent in NASCAR wasn’t too kind to the open-wheel refugee. AJ seemed unable to crack into the top 35 in points for three years and jumped between lower echelon teams before finding a few good results with Petty Motorsports and finally a permanent home at Penske Racing.

With all of that said, what are the true expectations of the once-young American open-wheel racing turned NASCAR star? In a word: high. AJ has the chops, or had the chops at one point. During his nine race stint with Forsythe, he showed he was an absolute force to be reckoned with when behind
the wheel for a championship capable team. And in the indycar arm of the Penske conglomerate, championship capable is the only iteration they know.

He also learned how to drive on ovals in Sprint Cup, where some of the world’s best oval drivers make their home. The transition will undoubtedly be tough, but Allmendinger has proven he can jump into nearly everything and be a contender. Look no further than his 24 hours of Daytona knife fight to the line win in 2012. The guy knows how to get around the twisties, and he has plenty of time to adjust to the oval car during practice for the 500.

Team Penske is perfectly capable of providing a car destined for the top step to a one off runner, and I guarantee you not a single corner will be cut during Allmendinger’s two outings with the team. I am sure the same funding could have been stretched to three or even four races, but the decision was made to do it right for two. All of the elements are there for AJ and Penske to make a huge splash in the series, but will he be able to capitalize on the opportunity like Will Power did?

If AJ can get a good finish at Indy, funding will be found to run him in a few more races. This could be good for the series. Most of my casual acquaintances know I am an indycar fanatic so they are always willing to answer my silly questions for casual sports fan. My favorite being: have you ever heard of so-and so? The usual answer is no, this includes Barrichello, Castroneves, Kanaan, Fisher, De Silvestro and many, many more. Allmendinger? More than a few have heard of him. Does that “move the needle”? doubtful, but at least more than just us in our little bubble know about him. That can never be bad, and is more than most indycar drivers can say save for Andretti and Wheldon, but both for the wrong reasons.

I am not a huge fan of his, but I am excited for another championship caliber driver from Champ Car getting a chance in the combined series. Like him or not, he has the skills and equipment to show some season regulars what he is made of. My personal expectations have never been as high for a one off than AJ Allmendinger’s coming campaign; I hope he can find enough success to reimagine his racing career. If nothing else, the guy who gained his oval chops in a fendered car should be fun to watch.

Eric Hall

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