AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- AJ Allmendinger doesn't know why Roger Penske gave him a second chance.
He doesn't ask, either.
"He's a great man, a great man in nature," Allmendinger said. "But do I feel like I deserve a second chance? No. Not from him. I brought bad light to his name. Do I feel like I've worked hard to get a second chance? Yes. I've worked hard every day, put my head down and worked my butt off and I'm lucky enough to have someone like Roger Penske take another shot with me."
Allmendinger's next chance comes this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., where he'll make his IndyCar Series debut more than six years after he last raced in an open-wheel series. He's driving for Penske Racing as a tune-up to the Indianapolis 500 in the second chance he never thought he'd get when he was fired by the organization last summer.
Hired by Penske that year to drive for his NASCAR team, Allmendinger failed a random drug test hours before the July race at Daytona. He was immediately suspended by NASCAR, and ultimately fired by Penske when his backup "B'' sample also tested positive for what Allmendinger has identified as Adderall.
It could have been a career-ender for Allmendinger. But he successfully completed NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program and was reinstated in September. Penske stayed in touch with him the entire time, and brought him out to the IndyCar season finale at Fontana last September as his guest.
Because Allmendinger had earned a spot in the Penske organization in just six months.
"As we built our team over the years, drivers become part of the family," Penske said. "All of us have had issues as we've grown up, and I think this is a situation that was unfortunate. The rules are the rules, and I think we stepped back and said, 'OK, he had to go through NASCAR probation.'
"But I felt like this opportunity for him, where we got a sponsor for him for Indy, was an opportunity to get him back up at a level where he needed to be to carry on his career," he said. "It was an easy decision. We are trying to rally around him."
Penske hasn't always been so forgiving with his drivers. After all, Paul Tracy was shown the door when he tested the team owner's patience.
When asked the difference between Tracy, who coincidentally has been a mentor at times to Allmendinger, and Penske's reclamation project, Penske snickered.
"I think Paul -- some of that was his own doing," Penske said. "There's a few guys who don't graduate. I just want you to realize one thing: We don't have an environment where nobody can't fail. Just remember that. Put that clear. We don't have an environment where no one fails."
So Allmendinger gets his second chance, and he desperately doesn't want to fail.
He left Champ Car after a successful five-win season in 2006 when an opportunity opened in NASCAR and, until now, he never looked back. All the money was in NASCAR and the future of open-wheel racing in America was shaky at best.
But Allmendinger has a respect for the talent level in IndyCar, for the drivers he competed against long ago. His participation in Sunday's race will draw some NASCAR fans to the viewing audience, and Allmendinger expects them to be impressed.
"I guess NASCAR fans don't know a lot of the names in the field, but that's because of marketing. Trust me, there are no scrubs in this series, these guys are so quick," Allmendinger said. "So now I'm here trying to manage expectations. But right now, I would love just to get through the first round of qualifying.
"I know people are going to be watching me, and I think it's going to be cool to bring some of those NASCAR fans over to notice the series and get them to say, 'Hey, that's some great racing.' I want IndyCar to be strong and it has a place in this country. It just needs to be noticed."
Now Allmendinger gets to be the guy to bring it attention, and he's not sure he is entirely ready. Unlike NASCAR's top Sprint Cup Series, which practices several hours every race weekend, the IndyCar Series has very little actual track time at Barber. He's rusty in open-wheel cars, new to IndyCar and still trying to get a feel for the change.