For A.J. Allmendinger, Drug Scenario Is Unfortunate No Matter The Outcome

When it was announced that A.J. Allmendinger was suspended from NASCAR following a positive drug test, Penske Racing immediately flew in Sam Hornish Jr. as his replacement for the Daytona race.

Ninety minutes before Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Daytona the announcement came that A.J. Allmendinger had failed a random substance abuse test and had been suspended.

It’s fair to say that among fans and media members there was a strong feeling of disbelief. The announcement, made by Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, was brief and shocking. No questions were addressed.

Among the media cell phones and laptops were put into high gear in hope of reaching assignment editors at newspapers and websites.

The subject of drug testing is all too familiar given the sad demise of Jeremy Mayfield, a former NASCAR star who failed a drug test in 2009 – and went straight downhill to bigger legal problems.

Allmendinger was asked to take part in a random drug test after the race at Kentucky on June 30. His A sample tested positive. The type of drugs and amounts in question were not disclosed.

Under established NASCAR rules, Allmendinger has the right to request that his B sample be tested within 72 hours. Should he refuse to have that sample tested, or if that test is positive, he will be suspended indefinitely.

In a last minute, dramatic substitution, Sam Hornish replaced Allmendinger in the No. 22 Dodge at Daytona and is scheduled to drive the car again at New Hampshire this weekend.

In an article in USA Today on July 8, team owner Roger Penske said, “You know it’s a disappointment at this particular time, but we’re going to wait and see what the second test results are before we make any comment or decisions.

“I don’t think it’s fair to him. I think as you look at sports, things happen like this. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t really want to make a statement pro or con right now. I’m counting on another test being proper for him within 72 hours, and at that point we’ll make a decision.”

To be fair to Allmendinger, it is possible that the test was a false positive. Until conclusive evidence proves he is guilty, none of us should rush to judgment.

After Mayfield’s very public fall from grace and the years of court battles that followed, NASCAR has been very cautious and thorough about drug testing – and about every aspect of Allmendinger’s suspension.

I do believe NASCAR officials would rather not have to travel this road with any of their competitors.

The only other high-profile NASCAR driver implicated in a drug abuse scenario has been Jeremy Mayfield, whose suspension from NASCAR has led to several legal situations that have virtually ended his career.

Still, once again, a top driver is in the news for substance abuse and is the subject of negative press.

The saddest part of this story is that Allmendinger is truly one of the nicest guys in this sport who had worked hard to get to NASCAR’s top level.

For years, his parents made huge financial sacrifices to help him race, to the tune of several home mortgages to keep his dream alive.

He is a commoner that came up the hard way and a driver with whom fans can relate.

Allmendinger reached the pinnacle of his career when the call to drive the No. 22 Penske Dodge came prior to the start of the 2012 season. He was tapped to replace Kurt Busch, a driver who had displayed his hot temper one time too many and lost one of the premier rides of his career.

Allmendinger has been a breath of fresh air for Penske since January. He’s helped put bad publicity aside, been great with fans and was considered a driver for whom success was merely a matter of time.

It may well come. Let’s get one thing straight. Allmendinger is involved in a very difficult, and career threatening, situation.

But as of now, he has not been proven guilty of anything. That may never happen.

However, right now he is still a high-profile driver implicated – implicated, mind you – in a drug abuse scenario.

Nine drivers who have competed in the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series have been suspended for failed drug tests since February of 2002. Crew members from those divisions have also been suspended over the past decade.

Allmendinger is only the second driver in Sprint Cup competition to be suspended, following Mayfield.

Even if Allmendinger emerges as “clean” following a second test, it may be that, however unfairly, he is tainted.

Today in NASCAR, many winners of the biggest and most prestigious events can’t find full-season sponsorship.

Given that, it seems virtually impossible for a team to sell a driver with any hint of substance abuse, real or otherwise, to, say, a Fortune 500 company.

One question remains: Why do NASCAR competitors partake in such behavior?

During the vast majority of NASCAR’s six decades of existence drug testing was never a consideration.

Make no mistake there has always been substance abuse. For example, I think it’s accurate to say that over the years many hungover drivers came to a track on race day.

But as the times changed and all of professional sports were plagued by cases of drug abuse – ranging from alcohol to steroids and everything in between – NASCAR felt a policy needed to be put in place.

Demands are huge for any individual who competes in any of NASCAR’s top divisions. Everyone is watching, listening and scrutinizing every move a driver, and team, make.

There is pressure in any professional sport and sometimes the need to do well can overtake common sense.

That may be true, but it is not an excuse. If drugs are used to relieve that pressure, that does not make it right.

If they are used recreationally, let’s just say for the hell of it, well … there are no excuses whatsoever.

I would like to think that perhaps NASCAR could offer some counseling or intervention before positive drug results make the headlines and ruin careers.

I doubt that will ever come to pass.

But I would also like to think that A.J. Allmendinger will emerge unscathed – with a lesson learned.

 

 

 

 

 

Weather May Force A Date Change But Not Driver Challenges

When it comes to a race nobody likes a rainout – not NASCAR, not the competitors, not the media, not speedway officials and, especially, not the fans.

Everyone wants the event to run on schedule for a lot of different reasons. Promoters know a postponement is going to cost them money. Fans paid that money and there is no certainty many of them can return the next day.

The media doesn’t WANT to come back another day. They want to finish their work on schedule and get the hell out.

I’ve been there and done that and believe me, for the media, there is no bigger hassle than, given the location of the speedway, to have to hastily reschedule a flight and often increase the company expenses.

Admittedly, for me, that was a while back. Might be easier today. That doesn’t make it any less disliked.

But rainouts happen. It’s all simply a part of the way things are. When a sport is conducted outside – in Mother Nature’s realm – there are going to be times when the old lady just won’t cooperate.

Which is exactly what happened yesterday at Watkins Glen International, where the Heluva Good! 500 Sprint Cup race was supposed to be conducted on the 2.45-mile road course.

Steady rain began just when the race was supposed to start a 1p.m. and did not end in time for track crews to dry the racing surface – a task we were told would take at least two hours.

Jet driers did get on the track but a second front assured the postponement until 10 a.m. this morning.

A delay isn’t popular, but then, the fact that a race is rescheduled for the next day makes the whole thing more palatable than it used to be.

There was a time when a postponed race was re-scheduled for the next clear weekend – be it in seven days, 14 or longer. It was whatever open weekend the schedule would allow.

Cars were impounded in the garage and there they stayed, untouched, for at least a week. When the teams finally returned to the track they were allowed to make minor preparations for the race, but that was about it.

There were times when a practice session was scheduled but they were rare.

The reason for all of this was mostly to ease the promoters’ concerns. Many were adamantly against rescheduling a race for the next day.

They felt that since Monday was a workday most fans wouldn’t – or couldn’t – return to the speedway. After all, NASCAR was a blue-collar sport that was popular among blue-collar workers. And how many of them were able to fashion their own work hours?

But in time NASCAR realized that waiting a week, or longer, to run a postponed race was by far a more expensive proposition for all concerned.

For the teams and media, at the least it often meant rebooked motel rooms for all concerned (which were sometimes unavailable) and maybe another round of airline tickets.

It definitely meant the loss of an otherwise open weekend. That, believe me, was widely despised.

It was the same for the fans, many of whom had planned and saved for a particular race weekend and simply didn’t have the time or money to do it all over again.

So NASCAR came up with its “next clear day” rule, which, of course, decreed that postponed races would run on the very first day the weather cooperated.

It was less expensive and more convenient for all concerned, even the promoters, who discovered that while attendance did drop off on a Monday, it was often better than it was a week or longer after the postponement.

“The next clear day” doesn’t solely mean Monday. A delayed race may run on a Tuesday if need be, although it’s not likely to extend beyond that because of teams’ need to get back to the shops and prepare for the next event.

If the Heluva Good 500 doesn’t get the green flag today – and I suspect that, given its 10 a.m. start, most of us will soon know one way or the other – NASCAR officials have said it might indeed have a go on Tuesday.

OK, while a race’s date may change, its challenges to the drivers do not – nor does what is at stake for many of them.

Several drivers face the same issues they faced before Sunday. Only difference is now they have to deal with them on a Monday.

For example, among other things, the “wildcard” spots for the Chase are still up for grabs. Drivers with the most wins and who are among the top 20 in points when the Chase begins will join the “playoffs” with the top 10 in standings.

At the Glen, those two drivers are Denny Hamlin, 11th in points with one victory, and Brad Keselowski, who stands 18th with two wins.

When it comes to Chase uncertainty, they aren’t alone. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hangs on to 10th in points but he has yet to win this year. Tony Stewart is ninth and is also winless.

David Ragan, once among the “wildcard” contenders after his victory in Daytona in July, is now 19th in points, one position and one victory behind Keselowski.

You can easily see what might happen among these drivers at the Glen, both good and bad. The race’s date has changed, but the circumstances? Not one bit.

That, of course, applies to every driver in the race. One of them is Australian Marcos Ambrose. He has yet to win a Sprint Cup race after 104 starts.

But observers, and his statistics, say that it’s the Glen where he’ll get his best shot at victory. He’s rated as one of NASCAR’s best road-course drivers, if not the best.

He’s won three Nationwide Series races at the Glen but couldn’t land a ride for this year’s event, which, I’m sure, didn’t sit well with him.

He’s never finished worse than third in three Cup starts. And in his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, he held the provisional pole for the Heluva Good 500 until bested by Kyle Busch and A.J. Allmendinger. Ambrose starts third today.

Ambrose said the rain delay hasn’t made him more anxious. I suspect the same can be said for the drivers scrapping for a position in the Chase.

“You can’t fight the weather,” Ambrose said when the event was postponed. “I just worry about the things I can control.

“In our case, the cover is on the car and it’s ready to go. We’re a contender, that’s for sure. But there’s nothing you can do until the sun comes out.”

Which, hopefully and ideally, happened before 10 a.m. today.

The Points System Has Provided Intrigue, With More To Come

Maybe I’m wrong and you may disagree, but if nothing else, NASCAR’S new points system has, to date, made the season intriguing.

As I understand it, the modified system awards a winner 43 points. He gets three more points for winning and another for leading a lap, which means a minimum of 47 laps.

If the winner leads the most laps that means another bonus point. The total is now 48, the most any driver can earn in a single race.

The most points the second-place finisher can get is 44 points, 42 for second, one for leading and one for leading the most laps.

Putting bonus points aside – NASCAR wanted to maintain the race winner reward – the system is pretty basic. There’s only a one-point difference between each position, from the base of 43 for first place to just one for last place.

The unique change NASCAR made for this season, in addition to rewarding consistency of performance, was to allow the top 10 after 26 races to qualify for the chase. Spots 11 and 12 would go to the drivers who have compiled the most victories and rank among the top 20.

OK, that’s enough. I’ve dwelled long enough on something you already know.

But what I find interesting about the new points system is that it has kept things fairly undecided as we enter the final six races before the Chase.

While there are a few drivers who seem safe when it comes to the Chase, there are others whose status is very much uncertain.

And Carl Edwards, the points leader, by no means has a lock on the top spot. He’s just seven points ahead of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Among the top 10 every driver except one has a victory. Kevin Harvick, fourth in points and eight behind Edwards, has three victories, as does Kyle Busch, who is fifth in points, 13 in arrears.

Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have two wins each – and are ranked sixth and seventh in points, respectively.

I would think all four drivers are pretty much guaranteed spots in the Chase.

I’d say the same for Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch (third in points), Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, who each have a victory and are among the top 10.

OK, here’s where the situation becomes a bit tense for some drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ranks ninth in points largely because he’s been in a competitive swoon. He was once as high as third in the standings.

But he does not have a victory. Which means two things if he wants to make the Chase: He has to hang on to the top 10 over the next six races, or, at the very least, earn a victory, something he hasn’t done since 2008.

Tony Stewart faces a similar situation. He’s tied with Hamlin for 10th in points, but unlike Hamlin, he doesn’t have a victory.

So if the Chase started immediately, Hamlin is in and Stewart is out.

But it doesn’t start immediately so Stewart has a chance to secure his place. Most likely he would prefer to do it with a victory. He hasn’t had a winless season in a career that dates back to 1999.

Other notables, such as Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, pretty much have to rely on winning to make the Chase.

Bowyer is 12th in points, Kahne 14th and Biffle 15th. They are 110 points or more behind the leader. Bowyer is 28 points out of 10th place. He can certainly make up the difference but the odds are quickly stacking against him.

It’s the same for Kahne and Biffle, who are each 47 points out of the hunt.

For these three guys, a victory would be the tonic. The last time Bowyer went winless happened in 2009. He won two races last year.

Kahne has had two consecutive winless seasons. Between 2003-10, Biffle had only one year without a victory, 2009.

I don’t think there’s much doubt any of them can win this year. The question is can they do it in time to help them make the Chase?

They are not alone. It’s going to take a win for several others who rank 11-20th in points to make NASCAR’s “playoff.”

They include A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Mark Martin.

Fact is there’s only one driver out of the top 10 who is assured a position in the Chase – for the time being, anyway.

That’s David Ragan, who won at Daytona on July 2 to earn the first victory of his career. He’s presently 13th in points.

He’s 46 points out of 10th place. That’s not insurmountable, just as it is for Bowyer, Kahne and Biffle, and I’m sure that, like the others, gaining positions is what he’d like to do.

But he’s the only one with the luxury of a victory.

As it stands right now, the only other driver who has a shot at the Chase is Brad Keselowski. He has a victory but, in 23rd place, ranks out of the top 20.

He’s going to have to scrap his way in. He’s 25 points behind 20th-place Martin, again certainly not an insurmountable margin. He has six races to do it.

The next half-dozen races are worthy of our attention. For some drivers it’s obviously going to take victory to make all the difference.

Can they win? Certainly. The 2011 season has already produced 13 different winners, including three who won for the first time.

Since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, the all-time record for most winners in a single season is 19 and the record for most first-time winners was five twice, in 2001 and 2002.

We’re on a pace to have 25 winners this year, including six who won for this first time in their careers.

I don’t know if that will happen, but the point is this season’s variety of winners would indicate that anything could happen over the next six events – and thus alter the starting field for the Chase.

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