SEBRING, Fla. – A.J. Allmendinger wasn't trying out for a job so much as trying out a race car for his former employer at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday.
But the end result could be the same.
After losing his job driving for Penske Racing's Sprint Cup team last year because of a drug suspension, the 31-year-old acquitted himself well in his return to open-wheel racing after a seven-year absence, team officials said.
And he will be entered in his first Indianapolis 500 in the car on May 26 if sponsorship is secured.
"We're not really testing A.J. We're letting A.J. test the car and the program and if we run a third car, it's going to be with him," Penske president Tim Cindric said. "Our initial plan would be to try and run him at Indy."
The team chose to use Allmendinger over Ryan Briscoe, who drove Penske's third car from 2008 until last season.
Cindric said the plan calls for Allmendinger to test the car again at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama in March and then enter the race there on April 7.
With no oval races on the IndyCar schedule before the Indianapolis 500, he would likely be allowed an oval test before his rookie orientation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Cindric said.
"This is kind of an introduction to a modern-day IndyCar, is how we're treating it," Cindric said.
Allmendinger was suspended by NASCAR in July after failing a random drug test and released by Penske when a backup "B'' sample also tested positive for a banned substance.
He completed NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program and was reinstated in September, but has yet to find work.
Penske offered Allmendinger — who won five races and finished third in the Champ Car standings in 2006 — another chance with his open-wheel team.
After admitted nervousness on Tuesday — including reflexively grabbing a hand clutch positioned where the gear shift used to be in the last version of a Champ Car he drove — Allmendinger was seventh of 13 drivers and within .632 seconds of leader in the morning session on the narrow and fast 1.7-mile road course, surprising Cindric.
"I feel like I got within a second of the lap time real quick, then you're like, 'Oh, I got this.'" Allmendinger said. "Then all of a sudden you're like, 'God, it's hard to get the second second, and that's the thing that makes these things so tough."
Allmendinger was 12th-fastest by the end of the session at 6 p.m., but roughly the same amount of time behind leader Takuma Sato.
Will Power, who raced briefly in Champ Car with Allmendinger, wasn't surprised his would-be teammate was adapting quickly.
"It didn't take him long," Power said. "You can imagine after a couple of tests he will be probably right back on top of things again, like, setting the pace, so, it's good, good for us to have someone quick as him."
Allmendinger said awaiting a verdict on sponsorship would not be difficult, even with so much out of his hands.
"You see my last six months? I've been waiting for a long time," he said. "The waiting doesn't matter to me. All this process I've learned a lot about myself and become a better person. As bad as it sounds, it's the truth in life. All you can do is take care of yourself and do the things you can control. ... I never expected this phone call to begin with. I'm already happier than I've ever been."