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Roger Penske: on AJ Allmendinger, and Sam Hornish's future

Roger Penske: on AJ Allmendinger, and Sam Hornish's future

The Captain, Roger Penske (L), with crew chief Paul Wolfe


   By Mike Mulhern

   Facing a deluge of questions about driver AJ Allmendinger, team owner Roger Penske held an impromptu session with the media about 90 minutes before Sunday's 301…and was careful not to throw anyone under the bus, while making very clear that this afternoon's Sprint Cup race could be a make-or-break race for substitute driver Sam Hornish Jr.
   "Right now we're waiting to get the second test results back," Penske said about Allmendinger, whose failed drug test at Kentucky two weeks ago has led NASCAR to suspend him temporarily.
    "I'm more concerned about him as an individual than I am about the situation. The situation will take care of itself.
    "We've got Sam in the car this weekend; it was the easiest thing. He did a good job in the Nationwide race. We'll see how he does today and we'll move on to next week.
    "If AJ's clean, he'll be in the car next week."
    This was apparently Penske's first media meet over the crisis. He was on vacation last weekend when the story broke.
   "I was on an airplane….AJ tried to contact me by text... by the time I got back, it all was publicized," Penske said.
    Penske of course is an international businessman, so drug testing isn't anything new for him. "Between applicants and people we've hired -- probably almost 300 people over last 12 months."
   The NASCAR policy? "We love the policy; we adhere to it," Penske said. "This is just a very unfortunate thing…very disappointing."
   Just what happens next, though, is quite unclear.
   If Allmendinger's B sample test clears him, Penske said he's back in the car, "absolutely."
   What that might mean for the NASCAR testing process, however, would be very much up in the air. And NASCAR officials aren't saying if any other B sample, during the four years of such testing, has cleared a suspected violator.
    Penske seemed to waffle a bit on Sam Hornish Jr.'s future in that ride, if Allmendinger is sidelined longer.
   After all Penske could have put Hornish in the car in December after the split with Kurt Busch, but Penske instead hired Allmendinger.
   "Sam has to focus on running in the Nationwide the rest of the season," Penske said.
   "This is an opportunity for him to race at the highest level. On the Cup side he didn't really get a fair shot at it last week because we had a bad tire situation; tire went down.
    "Today will be a real test for him."
    For the future, the rest of this season and 2013 Penske said depended a lot on sponsorship. "The sponsorship thing is always up in the air," he said.
    A potential wild card in this is Shell, the Penske-Allmendinger sponsor, and one of the biggest sponsors in this sport. Shell moved its Richard Childress sponsorship remember, despite success there.
    Shell officials have not yet weighed in on the Allmendinger situation.
   Penske says "The relationship we have (with Shell) goes deep in business and on the racing side.
    "We didn't expect this; they didn't expect it.
    "We've sat down with them, We've talked about the options.
    "They were very supportive of us putting Sam in the car for this weekend.
     "We said 'Let's look at this, because this can give us a chance to potentially look at drivers that are out there that might be wanting a ride in the 22, and with that, we have lots of options.'
     " My goal is that this thing goes in AJ's corner, so he can be back in the car and continue on, and this is a speed bump.
     "If you remember Helio (Castroneves) had an issue (accusations of tax evasion). We stayed with him, the issue was resolved, and he's now second or third in points on the Indy-car side.
    "So we want to deal with it (Allmendinger) on that basis.
     "I'm more concerned about him as an individual than the circumstances. We'll deal with the circumstances in a business way and support him one way or another."
   Of course Castroneves was a star driver, while Allmendinger in his years in NASCAR has struggled.
   Even if Allmendinger is cleared here, what about a contract for 2013? "We have an option date later in the year," Penske says. "We'll wait, because time gives you answers….time will give us the right answer."
   As far as Hornish's future with Penske goes, "we need to continue to run for the championship in Nationwide," Penske says. "We're 32 points out of the lead now. We've got commitments to sponsors; we can't turn that upside down.
    "On the other hand -- we'll wait and see. Sam knows that.
    "This is a great chance for him to show us what he has."
   And what happens if Allmendinger's B sample test supports the A test?
   "We'll have to look at what those circumstances are, and what are the issues, and talk with the sponsors.
   "Ultimately that will be my decision on whether he would come back or not. I don't want to make that call right now."
    At the moment, for the next few hours, the pressure will be on Hornish to produce, to sell himself both to Penske and Shell that he can do the job and that he deserves to be in the car for the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, if Allmendinger is still sidelined.
    "Today's race will make a difference," Penske says pointedly. "Sam doesn't have to win the race to be in the car next week, (but) he's got to be comfortable….we have to be comfortable.
    "The good news is we've got a couple weeks to sit back and assess the situation -- what are our options the next four to six races if AJ can't be in the car.
    "There are people a lot bigger than AJ Allmendinger who have had issues, who are strong and have come back and been successful.
   "I would hope there isn't an issue. And if there is, he'll manage it properly and professionally, and we'll move on."


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