MOORESVILLE, N.C. – AJ Allmendinger hit the jackpot Wednesday.
After losing his primary sponsor with Richard Petty's team, Roger Penske quickly hired the improving Sprint Cup driver to replace Kurt Busch in the No. 22 car.
To Allmendinger, it's a perfect pairing. To the Penske team, it was a move that simply made sense.
"I guess the word 'potential' is what continues to come up," Penske Racing president Tim Cindric said on a conference call. "We looked at everybody, we did our due diligence. AJ is somebody we've talked to over the years, but he wasn't somebody we considered until really the 11th hour when there was noise that they (Petty's team) might not be able to make things work over there. But nobody has had a better progression than he has."
Cindric would not divulge details of the contract, though it is believed to be a one-year deal. He also acknowledged that the team's short list of candidates was actually quite long and included many of the rumored names — Brian Vickers, David Ragan and David Reutimann among them.
Instead, Penske's team returned to its open-wheel racing roots by signing Allmendinger.
In 2002, Allmendinger won the Barber Dodge Pro Series title. In 2003, he won the Toyota Atlantics title. In 2004, he was Champ Car's rookie of the year. Then, in 2005, Allmendinger looked as if he was on track to becoming an open-wheel star when he won five times and finished third in points in the now defunct Champ Car World Series.
He joined the Cup circuit in 2007 and has shown steady improvement each season. As a rookie, he finished 43rd in points. Since then, he's finished 36th, 24th, 19th and 15th last season when he posted 10 top-10 finishes.
That was enough to convince Penske and Cindric that the 30-year-old Californian was the right man for the job.
"To have Mr. Penske personally want you to drive his race car, it gives you a lot of confidence," Allmendinger said. "I'm not blind to the pressure to perform. If I didn't feel like I could do that, I would feel like I was wasting everyone's time. I feel like I can take that next step and be a winner. I know this is the best chance I've ever had in the Sprint Cup series to go out there and perform and I'm ready to do that."
It won't be easy.
The Christmas week announcement will force Allmendinger and his new crew chief, Todd Gordon, to play catch-up with the other teams. Many of the Penske employees also scheduled to leave town Thursday for an extended holiday break. Before they depart, Allmendinger hopes to get a crash course at the team shop and spend some precious time with Gordon, who worked for Penske's Nationwide Series team in 2011.
Allmendinger also must scramble to build chemistry with his new teammate Brad Keselowski, who at age 27 becomes the longest-tenured driver on Penske's team. Allmendinger said he's met Keselowski but that the two don't know each other too well.
Plus, he must live up to the usual Penske standards.
Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, hasn't finished outside the top 20 in points since and has become a regular in the season-ending chase. Last year, Busch won two races, took three poles and finished 11th overall.
Two weeks ago, Busch and Penske mutually decided to part ways after six bumpy seasons, opening the door to Allmendinger.
"I always wanted to drive for Mr. Penske, so when the opportunity arose, I jumped right at," Allmendinger said. "It was something I wanted to be a part of. The last five years, I feel like I've made a good progression each year and I really hope this will help me take the next step and contend for a championship."
Penske expects nothing less.