DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — AJ Allmendinger's life changed forever a year ago, in the hours before the race at Daytona International Speedway.
NASCAR officials had just kicked him out of the track, suspending Allmendinger indefinitely for failing a random drug test. As his peers prepared for one of the biggest races of the year, and Sam Hornish Jr. scrambled to get from Charlotte, N.C., back to Daytona to drive his car, Allmendinger was reeling in seclusion.
The failed drug test sidelined Allmendinger for more than three months and ultimately cost him his job with Penske Racing. But it also spurred a great deal of introspection for Allmendinger, who returned to Daytona a year later a different person.
He headed into Saturday night's race happier than he's been in a long time and at peace with the twists and turns of his career.
"I've worked hard to get back in the sport, and I've also worked hard as a person to try to find myself and figure out how to be better," Allmendinger said. "I've said many times, at the end of the day, all you have is being able to look yourself in the mirror and like what you see. By the middle of last year, I didn't like myself. I was stressed.
"Now? The walls are torn down. This is me right now. This is it."
Allmendinger is tired of talking about his "comeback." He wants people to stop dwelling on the biggest mistake of his life, and his long road back into racing.
But he's aware that his audience has grown over the last 12 months, and that he's gained a following of fans eager to root for an underdog getting a second chance. Allmendinger owes much of that to Roger Penske, who stuck by the driver even after firing him.
Penske gave Allmendinger a ride in the Indianapolis 500, and so far four other IndyCar Series starts. He also hired Allmendinger to drive the Nationwide Series race last month at Road America, where Allmendinger scored the first win of his NASCAR career. His effusive victory speech was emotional and from the heart, and when Allmendinger kissed a television camera in a message for Penske, the team owner was watching.
"He said he was happy for me, and he told me he thought it was one of the best jobs I'd done," Allmendinger said. "That meant a lot. He was so pumped up about it. He was out of the country and he had to watch it at 2:30 in the morning on some British television station, and he was really excited about it. For me, and obviously I'd like to win more races for him, but to be able to finally get that one and say 'Thank you,' which I've said a million times over, that was just the best way to say thank you."
Allmendinger, who is running a handful of Sprint Cup Series races for Phoenix Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, also is scheduled to drive for Penske in the Nationwide race at Mid-Ohio.
"What this country is based on is being able to have a second chance," Allmendinger said. "I feel like I was open and honest about it, and I needed to take some time for myself. When people ask if I think I deserve a second chance from Roger — no, because Roger didn't owe me anything and I didn't deserve a second chance. But I always say if you make a mistake and you learn something from it, then the mistake was worth something.
"But if you make a mistake, and you keep making the same mistake over and over, well, that's your own stupidity. I've worked hard not to repeat my mistakes."
Allmendinger now takes his racing career week-by-week, piecing together what he can but trying his best to enjoy every moment he has at the track. There's been discussion with the Penske organization about running the season finale at Fontana, but he understands that with Helio Castroneves currently leading the points that a third car for Allmendinger could take away from a title run.
So Allmendinger is waiting to see what opportunities are out there for him.
"I don't have a really good answer for that yet. If Roger offers me something full-time next year, no matter what it is, I'd be stupid not to take it," Allmendinger said. "Other than that, I look at it, something full-time would be the best option. But I just want a place where people really want me there. I can enjoy the guys, enjoy the team atmosphere.
"I'm looking for a team I enjoy being around, having fun. We're all going to be stressed at times, we all want to perform. But I just want to have fun and enjoy going to the race track every weekend. Whatever series that's in, a chance to win or at least be competitive, that's all I want. I think people want me to say I want to be in NASCAR or I want to be in IndyCar. It's the opposite. It's not about that. It's about enjoying it. Having fun with it. Racing."