BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Penske Racing will pay out of its own pocket to take AJ Allmendinger to Long Beach for more seat time before the Indianapolis 500.
Allmendinger will make his IndyCar Series debut on Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, which was initially his only scheduled race before next month’s Indy 500. Series sponsor Izod signed on to help Allmendinger at Barber and Indianapolis, but team owner Roger Penske had no other funding secured for this season.
Penske team President Tim Cindric said Saturday the organization is committed to getting Allmendinger ready for the 500, and felt bringing him to Long Beach was in everyone’s best interest. Allmendinger ran three races at Long Beach in Champ Car, and his best finish was eighth in 2005.
“As the emotions get into it, and Roger’s commitment to the organization, we don’t want to go into Indianapolis any less prepared than what we can be,” Cindric said. “AJ has continued to gel with the team and we felt like it was worth the investment for him to run somewhere where he’s already run.”
Cindric said the team is not currently considering bringing Allmendinger to Brazil, the final race before team’s report to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for preparations for the May 26 race.
Allmendinger was fired by Penske last summer after failing a random NASCAR drug test, but the team owner stayed in contact with the driver while he completed the “Road to Recovery” program required for reinstatement. Cleared in September to race again, Penske worked on a plan to get Allmendinger into his IndyCar program.
Allmendinger has not run in an open-wheel series since 2006, his final season in Champ Car. He moved full-time to NASCAR the next season, and has not found that moving back into an Indy car is not as seamless as riding a bike.
And, because he’s never before raced at Barber, Cindric felt Sunday’s race wasn’t enough of a warm-up to get him properly prepared for Indy.
“If you look at here, this is a whole different place for him, and the amount of experience you need to find that extra couple tenths is a lot different than maybe a place like Long Beach where he’s comfortable and knows the place, and it’s just a matter of learning the car,” Cindric said. “He’s learning the car here and he’s learning the track, so it’s a bit difficult.”
Allmendinger, who is slowly getting more comfortable in the car this weekend at Barber, isn’t asking any questions about Penske’s decision to bring him to Long Beach and this opportunity to drive again for the organization.
“It’s just Roger Penske — I’ve said so much about him, and everything I’ve said is probably the biggest understatement,” Allmendinger said Saturday morning. “I just feel fortunate. I feel lucky to have a guy like that care about me so much. I’m not going to ask him why because I don’t want the real answer — I’m not going to make him question his own mind. But I just feel very, very lucky.”
He was also buoyed by the data sheets after Friday and Saturday practices that showed there are places on the 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course where Allmendinger can hold his own with Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power. Castroneves and Power are the only two drivers to visit Victory Lane in IndyCar’s three previous trips to the Alabama course.
Cindric said Allmendinger is actually better than the other two Penske drivers in spots on the track, but Allmendinger played that down.
“There’s a couple that I am at least close and I can help the guys and that makes me feel good,” he said. “I don’t want to be the charity case where they are like ‘Oh, we’ve got to help AJ get fast.’ I want to be part of this team and bring something, at least try to help these guys.
“I try to help Will and Helio a little, and even though they are helping me more than I am helping them, at least I feel like I am bringing a little bit.”