Sam Hornish Jr. -- on the point for Roger Penske, while subbing for AJ Allmendinger
By Mike Mulhern
While waiting for the Captain himself, Roger Penske, to weigh on all this, and while waiting for NASCAR executives to say something, anything, about the AJ Allmendinger situation, what is the situation down here on the ground, as Sunday's 301 approaches?
The two other keys to this puzzle: Sam Hornish Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
This will be Hornish's second performance as a super-sub for Allmendinger, sidelined by NASCAR for apparently failing a drug test. He had only minutes, literally, to get ready for last weekend's Daytona 400, and a cut tire eventually doomed his run. This week he's had a bit more time, but....
"It seems like we're always rushing a little bit, unfortunately," says the highly personable Indy-car star, whose four years in NASCAR have been rather fitful.
"I'm either trying to get down to Daytona, or we're behind in the qualifying line.
"Not a lot of time to sit in the car and think about it before it's time to go."
At least Hornish gets some practice time here.
AJ Allmendinger: what's next for 'the dinger'? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hornish, who dropped back this season to run Nationwide full-time, is still hopeful of getting back on the Sprint Cup tour as a regular, and Penske -- depending on what happens next with Allmendinger -- could restart that third team next season.
However the whole mess is, well, just a mess until NASCAR and Allmendinger provide more clarity.
So Hornish is, like the rest of us, just waiting.
"This is an opportunity I wasn't thinking I was going to have," Hornish says.
And he's also in the running for the Nationwide championship.
"Probably the most difficult thing for everybody is the uncertainty of not even really knowing where anything stands at this point.
"We're just trying to get through these next couple days, regroup, think about it, and figure out exactly where we are and where we need to be."
Of course it doesn't help that everyone in the garage is also focused on this situation too, and asking questions, and getting few answers.
Not to mention that sponsor Shell is one of the biggest sponsors in this sport....
Not to mention that teammate Brad Keselowski is red-hot on the Cup tour, with three wins already, just halfway.
And not to mention that next up on the NASCAR tour, after a rare week's break, is Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Hornish once ruled in Indy-cares. He'll be in this sport's first Nationwide race at that track, a major endeavor...and he might be in the Brickyard 400 too, depending.
The Indy-Nationwide race should be quite different from the 400 itself. "These Nationwide cars have so much drag, they're going to be two and three-wide down the straightaways, and everybody is going to have to figure out how to file into the corners," Hornish says.
All in all, a heck of a lot on Hornish's plate at the moment.
Nothing like a make-or-break couple of weeks to put everything in stark focus....
Brad Keselowski: no professional athlete should be taking any supplements, no vitamins, no protein powder, nothing (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And what about Keselowski?
He's solid, almost a lock to make the playoffs, just eight weeks off. And remember he was in the thick of the title fight last season right down to the final weeks.
This season, aside from wins at Bristol, Talladega and Kentucky, he's been up-and-down, not as impressive overall as the second half of last season, but patient and steady.
However that's not where Keselowski has made the really big moves this season. More it's in his sheer 'presence,' a confidence in the way he approaches things.
So at this point in the season, with the Allmendinger situation so unsettling, how is Keselowski faring?
"Uncertainty is a good word, because I'm uncertain myself about how it's all going to unfold," Keselowski says of the Allmendinger debate.
"We have to figure out the way to minimize the distraction.... to walk around it and minimize the collateral damage."
Lots of luck.
Waiting for Roger Penske to weigh in on all this (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski says he hasn't talked with Allmendinger.
"If AJ wanted me to know more, he would call me...so I've taken that as a signal for him not wanting me to be involved...which is okay."
Not that he or any of these NASCAR drivers can escape the glare of the national spotlight in this situation...even if the Olympics is getting underway.
But Keselowski certainly isn't ducking or hiding. Of course that's not his style anyway, which is why his popularity is on the rise. He hates to play defense, on the track or in his own life.
-- About Carl Edwards' proposal that drivers set up and fund their own drug testing operation at each track, to work with NASCAR's own drug testers: Keselowski says "I'm certainly not supportive of Carl's idea.
"I don't think there's a place for things like that. I don't think we need more politics involved in the sport... and that's what groups like that bring in."
The Captain (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Notes here: Penske of course was one of the leaders of the great Indy-car political split, a movement that, uh, ultimately didn't fare well. And Keselowski's outspoken nature -- ripping the new engine electronic fuel injection systems, for example -- have cost him major fines by NASCAR.
Hence, an obvious unwillingness to step out on the limb with Edwards.
Allmendinger got his start in this sport driving for Team Red Bull (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- However Keselowski turned heads here when he amplified on that by saying that at this professional level he didn't think athletes should be taking any substances at all, not even vitamins.
"It's my personal belief that nothing should be allowed -- nothing," Keselowski said clearly, warming to this part of the debate.
"I don't feel you should take Flintstone (vitamin) pills.
"You're race car drivers -- you should have to overcome it.
"I think it's bull that people are allowed to take supplements or any of those things. I don't think that's right.
"Nothing should be allowed.
"My own personal code is to take nothing at all.
"I've never taken drugs in my life. I'm scared of it. It's honestly a phobia of mine.
"But when I go in that room (to pee in the cup for NASCAR's drug testers), I'm still scared -- because you know if something goes wrong, it's a death sentence for your career. It's over.
"And you know it's in human hands....and there is potential for error.
"I'd like to sit here and believe it (Allmendinger's drug test for example) has gone through all the processes to make sure that it was done right... and that no one would go out on a limb and risk someone's career if it wasn't checked, checked and back-checked.
"But I also know humans make mistakes even when they check, check and recheck. That's why airplanes crash. That's how things go.
"There are plenty of redundancies in the airlines, and they still find a way to crash."
Sam Hornish Jr. -- a big break, again. What can he do with it? How long will he have? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And Keselowski didn't seem very upbeat about Allmendinger's future:
"I hope he's taking some time to spend with his family, and finds what he needs within himself... because no matter what the outcome is, it's going to be a long road.
"Whether it (the second drug test) comes back positive or negative, it doesn't make a difference. It's still a death sentence.
"Within this sport we rely on sponsors and reputation.
"Medical science has created these items to make a gain. I'm sure there are ones out there that taste good, I'm sure there are ones out there that create a performance advantage.
"I'm scared of them. And I don't take them because there is that moment where this could potentially happen to you. I know what kind of death sentence that is.
"I would rather work harder and overcome it, than risk having a moment where you don't pass a drug test.
"It's a tough thing to see. It's like watching somebody get killed -- because you know what it is to that person's career. It's a devastating moment."
Why, without the late Jim Hunter, does NASCAR seem suddenly lost in dealing with the media during crisis situations? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"Whether it's here today in NASCAR, or the NFL, or even the Olympics, it would be my preference that you were allowed to take nothing," Keselowski went on. "That it was your job to just do it...to just go out there and perform throughout the pain or whatever ails you.
"I laugh out-loud when I read this list of people who say 'Well, I have my supplements checked.' Like there's some special list of supplements that are okay but these aren't.
"What kind of world is that?
"Nothing should be allowed.
"I don't think there needs to be any committee that approves drugs or supplements or whatever. You shouldn't be allowed to take anything.
"You should just man-up and drive the damn race car."
AJ Allmendinger winning the 24 Hours of Daytona in early 2012 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)