When I was a crew chief, I experienced a similar incident to what the Penske Racing No. 22 team is facing in terms of preparing for a race with a substitute driver.
Now, my situation wasn't exactly the same, because my driver had been injured and not suspended under the substance abuse policy, as AJ Allmendinger has been.
Regardless, Sam Hornish Jr. drove Allmendinger's car at Daytona last weekend and will again at New Hampshire on Sunday.
Though that Penske Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup team has had some offseason changes in both driver and crew chief, the nucleus of the at-track bunch is still basically intact. That team went through ups and downs last year: It won three races and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. but then came all the drama with Kurt Busch at the very end of the season. Busch was penalized for a verbal altercation with a media member after the season-ending race and then parted ways with the organization in December.
My point is, that team endured a very challenging 2011 and here it is halfway through the 2012 season experiencing even more drama. The team had some early season success with a pole at Kansas Speedway and a second-place finish at Martinsville Speedway, but overall, 2012 has been pretty dismal considering all the expectations and high hopes.
It actually seemed as if the team had turned a corner with top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Kentucky Speedway. They went to Daytona and qualified in the top 10, but that’s when the wheels came off. Hours before the start of Saturday’s race at Daytona, Allmendinger was notified by NASCAR that he was not going to drive the No. 22 car that night as he had failed a random drug test.
I can’t comprehend how that team felt having overcome all this adversity from last year and into this year. And think about poor Hornish. Just hours before the race he was at the SPEED studios doing a television show when he got a call on his cell phone telling him he had to get to the airport immediately.
I think we will here more on a day-to-day basis as this thing unfolds. We know that Sam will be in the car this weekend at New Hampshire. The good news is that Sam has continued to be part of Penske Racing in the Nationwide Series, so the learning curve of meeting the guys and everyone getting to know everyone isn't needed.
I am sure they are going to reassure Sam they are there to give him whatever he needs. Let's face it, it has to be an uncomfortable situation across the board and even more so for Sam. Trust me, Sam’s excited to race a Cup car, but I promise you these are not the circumstances he had hoped for.
The team's goal, as a group, has to be: Put together a solid run, don’t tear up equipment and get through this as a group. It’s the crew chief’s job as the leader to keep everyone focused and pulling toward the same goal. He must try to keep the distractions to a minimum but also remind the team members they all collectively are under a microscope right now.
They need to keep their heads down, do their jobs and make the absolute best they can of a difficult situation.
Right now, there is no way to tell how long Sam is going to be in the car.
On the plus side, there are some really good tracks coming up on the schedule for Sam if he does remain in the car. That starts with the race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is the event after New Hampshire. He also runs well at Pocono Raceway, and that happens to be the race after the Brickyard. So Sam has his solid history at these places on which to build if, indeed, he is still in the car.