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.

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