ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — AJ Allmendinger believes he has worked hard enough to earn a second chance from team owner Roger Penske.
But given the circumstances surrounding his departure from the motorsports mogul's team last season, Allmendinger wouldn't go so far as to say he deserved it.
"Do I feel like I ever deserved it? Probably not," Allmendinger says. "Roger Penske didn't have to give me a second chance. There was no reason. He didn't owe me anything. I took that all away."
Allmendinger was suspended last season after violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy, leaving Penske no choice but to sever ties with a promising driver who was making progress in his transition from Indy-style racing. Allmendinger, who said he failed a drug test because he took a pill from a friend and didn't realize it contained Adderall, completed a NASCAR-affiliated recovery program and was reinstated.
Allmendinger was surprised that Penske stayed in touch with him after his suspension, checking in to ask how he was doing. He was even more surprised when Penske gave him the chance to race again this season, even if it was on a limited basis.
"He's also got a special place in his heart for me, I guess," Allmendinger says. "I'm not going to ask why. I think it's just the fact that I keep working hard as a person. . We all make mistakes. Nobody's perfect. Am I glad I went through that? No. But do I feel like I'm better for it? Yes."
Fast forward to last Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Road America, where Allmendinger put one of Penske's cars in victory lane — something he has wanted to do since he first joined the team in 2012 and saw decades' worth of race victories commemorated in posters on the walls of the team's race shop.
"All I said was I just want one of those posters in there, at least," Allmendinger says. "I wanted to show that I was a small part of this race team that actually did something great for Roger. It's cool to have that now."
He has driven for Penske in five IndyCar races this year, including an impressive run at the Indianapolis 500 where a loose seat belt might have cost him a shot at the win and a miserable weekend in Detroit where he crashed twice in both ends of a racing double-header. Allmendinger also has driven in six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this season, although none of those has been for Penske.
And while it's not clear how many more races he'll do this year — he'll drive for Penske again in the Nationwide race at Mid-Ohio in August — his ultimate goal is to get another full-time ride with Penske, in whatever series "The Captain" sees fit.
"If Roger Penske's going to offer me full-time in something, I'd be an idiot to turn it down," Allmendinger says. "He's just an amazing guy to work for."
Has he talked to Penske about the future?
"Nah," he says. "I just keep saying, 'Yes, sir.' He keeps bringing up more races for me? 'I'll be there, boss. Thank you.'"
Penske Racing President Tim Cindric says Allmendinger has paid his dues.
"After the dust settled, he realized 'Hey, I made a mistake,'" Cindric says. "You go through the phases of how to deal with it and the different circumstances. But at the end of the day, he acknowledged that he made a mistake. He paid his dues, and he's an example for others about what can happen, and how difficult it can be when you do make that mistake. But also, there is still hope beyond that."
Allmendinger seems to have been accepted back by fellow competitors; having Penske's blessing certainly didn't hurt.
"Obviously, he has a trust and a respect for what AJ has told him and what AJ has done for him," says Nationwide driver Justin Allgaier, a former Penske driver. "So I trust Roger's opinion a lot, and I have more respect for Roger Penske than most people in the garage. So I would say if he's taking him back in and putting him back in his race cars, he's done every step that Roger feels is necessary and I have respect for that."
Driver Parker Kligerman, a friend of Allmendinger's, is happy to see him back.
"You could see that he probably wasn't in the best place personally at that time," Kligerman says. "As a human being, and not just a race car driver, you can totally understand that. And to come back, I think, for any athlete or any situation that's a competitive situation, once you've lost it all, I think you see a lot of times you come back and you're better at what you do. I think we're seeing that right now with AJ."
AP Sports Writer Luke Meredith contributed to this story from Newton, Iowa.