One of the busiest weeks of the NASCAR season just got a lot busier for team owner Roger Penske.
As teams prepare to converge on Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Crown Royal 400, generally considered the second most important race weekend of the season, Penske, one of the bedrock players at Indy for 40 years, will be dealing with the aftermath of driver AJ Allmendinger’s indefinite suspension for failing a NASCAR drug test.
The second sample from Allmendinger’s recent drug test was confirmed positive Tuesday, and NASCAR suspended the 30-year-old driver from competition until he goes through a rehabilitation program that would last at least several weeks and possibly months.
There was no indication from Allmendinger Tuesday that he will agree to the rehabilitation process.
Meanwhile, Penske Racing said Sam Hornish Jr., who drives full-time in the Nationwide Series for the team, will replace Allmendinger this weekend at Indianapolis and next week at Pocono Raceway. Hornish already has driven the No. 22 as Allmendinger’s replacement in races at Daytona International Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Now, Penske faces decisions about both the short-term and long-term future of the 22 driver’s seat.
Assuming Allmendinger is not reinstated to the team over the next few months, Hornish is likely to be among the candidates for the full-time ride next season. He has long and strong connections with Penske, has performed well on the Nationwide circuit this year and, in the estimation of many, deserves another full-time shot at Sprint Cup.
Hornish raced in Sprint Cup from 2008-10 for Penske and had a best finish of 28th in the point standings.
As for the rest of this season, Penske has said that he wants Hornish, a former IndyCar champion, to concentrate on Nationwide and that he would not remove Hornish from the Nationwide car to run Sprint Cup on the conflicting weekends.
Among drivers who might be considered for the Penske vacancy is Joey Logano, who is in his contract year at Joe Gibbs Racing and apparently has had discussions with the team. Also in a contract year is Stewart-Haas Racing driver Ryan Newman, who drove for Penske in the Sprint Cup Series from 2000-08, winning 13 times. Newman has not commented on the possibility of returning to the team, but he and Penske have a solid relationship, and Stewart-Haas is wrestling with sponsorship issues.
Penske could use some or all of the remaining Sprint Cup races this season as “tryout” dates for prospective drivers. Although Penske is still looking for his first Sprint Cup championship (and has an excellent shot this season with driver Brad Keselowski), Penske Racing is considered one of the elite organizations in NASCAR.
“This could give us a chance potentially to look at drivers that might be wanting a ride in the 22,” Penske said after Allmendinger was suspended temporarily. “With that, we have lots of options.”
Shell/Pennzoil, the team’s primary sponsor, has indicated its willingness to follow Penske’s lead.
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.