AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 12: A.J. Allmendinger, driver of the #43 Wix Filters Ford, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 12, 2011 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images for NASCAR)

AJ Allmendinger Lands In Penske Racing's No. 22 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Car

Big day for 'Dinger: He'll replace Kurt Busch in the Shell-sponsored car at Penske.

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Why Penske Racing Decided To Hire AJ Allmendinger For Open NASCAR Ride

Forgive AJ Allmendinger if his head is still spinning from a whirlwind few days.

At the start of last week, Allmendinger was planning on being the driver of Richard Petty Motorsports' No. 43 car next season – just as he had been in 2011.

But when team officials said publicly they were interested in having Kurt Busch join the organization last week, Allmendinger said it raised a "red flag" about his future at RPM. Then, a few days ago, Allmendinger's potential availability came to the attention of Penske Racing, which was looking to replace the aforementioned Busch in the team's No. 22 car.

When RPM sponsor Best Buy decided it was leaving for Roush Fenway Racing, the team agreed to release Allmendinger since it had become apparent there was no immediate sponsorship to put a program together for the No. 43 (Allmendinger called the "final straw" for his tenure at RPM).

'Dinger was then able to negotiate a deal to join Penske – which was signed and announced Wednesday.

"It happened so quick, I'm still trying to get head wrapped around it," Allmendinger said Wednesday via teleconference.

From Penske's perspective, Allmendinger was initially not under consideration when the team began a comprehensive driver search.

Penske president Tim Cindric said the organization considered David Ragan, Brian Vickers and David Reutimann, along with up-and-coming drivers and a couple drivers in "complicated situations" they couldn't get out of.

"You're not going to replace Kurt Busch on the racetrack with anybody out there right now that has the kind of statistics and those kind of numbers," Cindric said. "So you're going to look at potential."

That potential, he added, included both the opportunity to get to Victory Lane and the chance to represent sponsor Shell-Pennzoil in a proper fashion.

Ultimately, Allmendinger was the guy. Cindric cited Allmendinger's constant improvement in NASCAR since arriving from the open-wheel ranks as a reason he stood out from the others.

"We considered virtually everybody that was out there and did our diligence to try to understand if there was anything in the landscape we didn't know or wasn't obvious," Cindric said. " ... There's nobody who has a better progression for his career. ... You really have to go with your gut and what you think will create the right chemistry."

Allmendinger was understandably both thrilled and humbled by his new ride. Calling it "the best chance I've ever had in the Sprint Cup Series," Allmendinger said he received a shot of confidence that the man he calls "Mr. Penske" wanted him to drive for the team.

One thing that will be a change for Allmendinger: In switching from RPM to Penske, the California native goes from top dog to second fiddle in terms of seniority (Brad Keselowski is now the team's lead driver, so to speak).

'Dinger and Keselowski don't have much of a relationship, he said, but they don't have any negative history, either. The two spoke before Penske finalized Allmendinger's hiring.

"I need to make that next (career) step and Brad did that – which is difficult in the middle of the year – and became a championship contender," Allmendinger said. "He leads this organization right now, and I've got to come in here and learn from him."

Cindric said he hopes to have a "long-term" relationship with Allmendinger that extends well past 2012. Though he wouldn't say specifically what kind of clauses were in the contract, Cindric said there were "gates" the driver and organization would need to pass through (such as making the Chase or winning races, perhaps) that would help extend the relationship beyond next season.

Sponsor Shell obviously feels the same way, or the deal wouldn't have happened. Cindric said Shell trusted the team to do its research and recommend candidates for the sponsor's approval.

"The last thing you need is to be sitting here next year wondering about the driver of the 22," he said.

Expectations for the team are uncertain, though the pressure to fill Busch's Chase-caliber shoes is immense. Cindric said Allmendinger and new crew chief Todd Gordon need to "hit singles" before swinging for the fences, and Allmendinger said it's important not to get into a hole early in the season.


Shell Statement: How Much Did Penske Team Sponsor Have To Do With AJ Allmendinger Hiring?

After the embarrassment of Kurt Busch's Homestead tirade at ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch – which was caught on video and distributed via YouTube – Penske Racing sponsor Shell-Pennzoil released a strongly worded statement.

The company said it was "disappointed" with Busch's actions, which were "in no way consistent with the way we want our brands represented." Shell also said it expressed its concerns "directly to Penske Racing."

Ten days later, Busch and Penske announced a "mutual" split. And while both sides insisted it wasn't a firing, Penske certainly had to be under pressure from Shell to work out a separation with the driver.

Penske was then charged with finding a suitable replacement for the No. 22 car – a driver who could not only win races, but also represent the Shell brand without any drama.

While we don't yet know how much input Shell had over Penske's decision to hire AJ Allmendinger on Wednesday, I'm guessing it was quite a lot.

Shell likely didn't dictate the hiring outright, but it certainly had to give its approval and probably played a big role in the overall search.

And along with the announcement, the company released the following statement – a much happier one than the post-Homestead comments:

"Shell and Pennzoil are extremely pleased by Penske Racing's selection of AJ Allmendinger to drive the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge. AJ has consistently demonstrated great potential and continuous improvement as a driver, and with Penske's track record, our employees and customers can look forward to seeing him contending for wins and ultimately a championship in the NASCAR Cup Series. We know he will represent our brands well on and off the track and we look forward to a successful 2012 with AJ behind the wheel."

– Lisa Davis, president of Shell Oil Products U.S.


AJ Allmendinger Lands In Penske Racing's No. 22 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Car

Big day for 'Dinger: He'll replace Kurt Busch in the Shell-sponsored car at Penske.


Kurt Busch Leaves Penske Racing Under 'Mutual Agreement,' Team Says

Kurt Busch is no longer a driver for Penske Racing, the team said in a Monday morning release.

Busch was reportedly fired by Penske, but the team presented the separation as a "mutual agreement" and said both sides had a hand in the decision.

Penske will now look for another driver (rumored to be David Ragan, though he declined comment to SB Nation), while Busch evaluates his future in racing.

The news release said Busch "will seek new opportunities with another race team," though his options seem extremely limited in the current NASCAR landscape.

"I am grateful to Penske Racing for six very productive years," Busch said. "Together we won a lot of races – 16 in all. Leaving a great organization and a lucrative contract is not easy, but it's an important step for me and allows me to take a deep breath to work on things that can make me a better driver and a better person."

Busch said last week he was seeing a sports psychologist to deal with personal issues, which include extreme anger. That anger was captured in a YouTube rant toward an ESPN pit reporter, and it ultimately led to Busch's departure.

For Penske – and more important, for sponsor Shell – enough was enough.

"I appreciate the victories that Kurt has brought Penske Racing and our sponsors over the past six years," team owner Roger Penske said. "While I am disappointed that Kurt will not be racing for our team in the future, both Kurt and I felt that separating at this time was best for all parties, including our team and sponsors. I wish Kurt the best in his future racing endeavors."

Where can Busch go now?

It's unlikely he'll be able to find a competitive full-time Cup ride unless he unseats an existing driver. But he's already burned bridges with Ford teams and Dodge teams, so a team such as Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing might be one of the only places that would give him an opportunity.

Penske will reportedly announce its choice to replace Busch later today.

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