ELKHART LAKE, Wis. — Team owner Roger Penske gave AJ Allmendinger a second chance.
Now they both have a trophy to show for it — and, perhaps, the foundation of a rebuilt racing career.
Allmendinger took the lead from Justin Allgaier with seven laps to go in regulation, then didn’t get rattled through a late restart and two nerve-testing green-white-checkered overtime finishes, holding on to win Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Road America.
Afterward, he expressed appreciation for Penske, the team owner who originally let him go last season after he was suspended for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy.
“It’s just meant the world to me,” Allmendinger said. “This was the only way I could repay him. I was trying so hard out there — and, at times, probably over-trying.”
Allgaier finished second, followed by Parker Kligerman, Owen Kelly and Sam Hornish Jr.
Allgaier won a road course race at Montreal last season but still tipped his cap to Allmendinger’s road racing skills.
“I’m still not a road racer, I can assure you of that,” Allgaier said. “Just watching AJ in front of me and seeing some of the places he was able to get away from me on that last green-white-checkered, I still have some stuff to learn.”
It’s Allmendinger’s first win in NASCAR, but not his first at Road America. He won at the four-mile road course in Central Wisconsin in 2006, racing in the Champ Car Series.
“It’s my favorite track now,” Allmendinger said.
Billy Johnson led on a restart with eight to go, but he slid wide in Turn 5 and was passed by Allgaier and Allmendinger. Allmendinger then made the decisive move one lap later, snatching the lead from Allgaier at the top of the hill in Turn 6.
He’d have to defend his lead on three more restarts, fending off a charge from Allgaier with three laps to go and then facing two green-white-checkered finishes — NASCAR’s version of overtime.
Allmendinger once again took the lead, only to watch another caution come out for Michael Annett’s accident to trigger a second overtime.
With drivers facing concerns about having enough fuel left on the second green-white-checkered restart, Allmendinger held on again to take the checkered flag and stop in Turn 5 to celebrate in front of the fans. Allmendinger even had enough fuel left to do a celebratory burnout.
“They weren’t fun,” Allmendinger said of all the restarts. “I had a lot of thoughts in my head about how bad that (stunk) having to do that. But it’s part of the rules.”
Regan Smith finished 32nd and leads the Nationwide Series standings by 28 points over Allgaier.
Defending race winner Nelson Piquet Jr. then had a rough moment before the race’s halfway point, plowing into the back of Brian Scott’s car. Piquet’s hood crumpled in the crash, costing him any chance of contention.
Allmendinger then retook the lead on lap 26, bumping his way past Kelly on the exit of Turn 5. Allmendinger pulled away and quickly built a lead of more than two seconds — and then Kelly lost second place when he came to a stop on the back side of the track, apparently out of fuel.
After getting a push back to the pits from a safety vehicle, Kelly was able to get back in the race.
Most of the leaders then pitted with 19 laps to go — right at the outer edge of most teams’ fuel windows, making it unclear whether they had enough to make it to the end.
Meanwhile, Kenny Habul caused a moment of levity when he veered off course on the restart and collected a large advertising sign, which stuck to his nose for the better part of a lap before another caution came out.
The win was a big step for Allmendinger, whose racing career took a wrong turn last year when he failed a NASCAR drug test, resulting in a suspension and the loss of his ride at Penske Racing.
Allmendinger, who said he took a pill offered by a friend that turned out to be Adderall, was reinstated after completing a NASCAR-affiliated recovery program, and now is getting a limited second chance with the Penske team this year.
“I wouldn’t have thought twice if he would have just kind of wrote it off and not called and went on,” Allmendinger said of Penske. “He’s got so much going on in his life. But he just kept checking up on me. I didn’t expect anything from it. It was just nice to have a friend, somebody that I could bounce ideas off of.”
Kilgerman, a friend of Allmendinger’s off the track, is impressed by his resiliency.
“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,” he said. “
I think we’re seeing that right now with AJ.”