AJ Allmendinger poses for a picture with Tiffanie Zimbelman at Kansas earlier this season. (Courtesy of Tiffanie Zimbelman)
Allmendinger fans vow to stand behind the affable driver because of their personal connections with him – and refuse to believe he did anything wrong.
Tiffanie Zimbelman cried herself to sleep on Saturday night and woke up crying on Sunday morning.
Zimbelman, a 27-year-old preschool teacher from Kansas City, is one of AJ Allmendinger's biggest fans and was devastated to hear the news of the driver's failed drug test and suspension from NASCAR.
She has met him "at least 20 times," she said, and the walls of her bedroom are plastered with Allmendinger pictures. Zimbelman just booked a trip to the Brickyard 400 on Friday night, where she hoped to give her favorite driver a handmade quilt with his personal logo on it.
While she's uncertain what Allmendinger's future may be, Zimbelman said she's "crossing my fingers with my life" that the drug test's 'B' sample will turn out to be negative.
"Either way, I'll stick behind him," she said. "He's done so much for me at the track. He claimed I was his No. 1 fan – even over his dad – and at Kansas in April, he gave me stuff for my birthday."
Similarly, 15-year-old Ashley Bray of Florida said her personal connection with Allmendinger is the primary reason she won't give up on the driver. When she met him at a preseason event, Allmendinger spoke with her for 20 minutes and gave her the hat off his head.
"(The drug test) can't be true," she said. "It doesn't sound like AJ. He'd never do anything like that. His fans are too important to him."
Bray was at Daytona on Saturday night and was attending the pre-race Train concert in the infield when she learned of Allmendinger's suspension. She was so upset that she walked out of the concert to collect herself.
"I honestly don't think he did anything wrong," she said. "If he did, I don't know how I'd handle it. But I'll still like AJ no matter what."
Brian Sargent of Oklahoma City isn't an Allmendinger fan, but his 8-year-old son Cody is. When Cody started watching races with his dad, he thought Allmendinger's last name was funny and was able to remember it.
Now, his father said, Allmendinger is the only professional athlete Cody roots for. Sargent doesn't know how to tell his son what happened to the driver if he asks why Allmendinger is not in the race (Cody wasn't watching closely on Saturday night).
"I guess I'd say, 'Well, he got in trouble with NASCAR and he's not allowed to race,'" Sargent said. "But I know he'll ask, 'Well, what did he do?' I haven't thought that far ahead yet. I haven't gone through this before."
Sargent said if his son was a teenager, it would be a good time to have the "Don't do drugs" talk. But Cody couldn't comprehend a conversation about drugs and alcohol at his age, his father said.
"He'd get confused and not understand," Sargent said. "I guess this is part of parenting: What do you do when your kid's role models get in trouble?"
Zimbelman, the diehard fan, said she had communicated with other Allmendinger fans who also vowed to stand behind the driver no matter what.
But if the driver's absence from racing turns into an extended one, she doesn't know what she'll do. Zimbelman said she wasn't happy watching Saturday night's Daytona race.
"It was just different," she said. "I had no one to cheer for."