It was not the kind of news Roger Penske, a globe-trotting motorsports magnate who isn’t used to dealing with such matters, wanted to address upon his return from a European vacation.
AJ Allmendinger, one of Penske Racing’s Sprint Cup drivers and representative of one of Penske’s solid national/international sponsors, had been thrown in the jailhouse by NASCAR, temporarily suspended for failing a random drug test.
Allmendinger and the Penske operation got the news Saturday afternoon. Suddenly, the team was thrust into an embarrassing situation. It had a starting spot – but no driver – for the Coke Zero 400.
Calls went out to Penske Nationwide Series driver Sam Hornish Jr., who was in North Carolina. Rapidly-arranged air transport put Hornish on the ground in Daytona Beach a few minutes before the scheduled start of the race, and a police escort moved him quickly from the airport to the speedway. He barely caught his breath before joining the rest of the field for pace laps.
This was a humiliating and very uncomfortable sequence of events for Penske Racing, an organization that prides itself on professionalism and decorum.
But the Saturday afternoon/evening exercise in rapid response pales beside what likely will follow for one of international motorsports’ most respected organizations.
“To me, it’s a big speed bump for us, but at the end of the day, we’ve had situations before that we’ve had to deal with and we’re going to be professional, we are going to support the sport and we don’t want to let our sponsors down,” Penske said Sunday. “At this point, we’ll just wait and see.”
There is only one way that this situation will not end poorly for Penske – and that’s if the so-called “B” sample from Allmendinger’s drug test produces a negative result.
If the B sample confirms the A test, Allmendinger almost certainly will be suspended indefinitely by NASCAR.
In that case, Penske and his people have work to do. It’s a safe assumption that Hornish, who previously raced in Cup, would be the temporary replacement in the No. 22 Dodges, but there will be conflicts with the Nationwide Series schedule that would make that solution difficult in the long term. Both the Cup and Nationwide series are scheduled to run this weekend in Loudon, NH, where Hornish will fill in on the Cup side for Allmendinger.
Although there is no call to rush to judgment – the results from the B sample might not be available this week, there seems to be a better than 50-50 chance that there will be a job opening at one of the sport’s top addresses for the 2013 season, if not before. That would put another strange twist on a Silly Season that already has seen series point leader Matt Kenseth decide to depart Roush Fenway Racing for a new ride next year.
Allmendinger, who left Daytona Beach Saturday, has not made a public comment about the situation.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.