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Penske Racing driver A.J. Allmendinger listens to questions from reporters during the NASCAR Media Tour in Concord, N.C., on January 26, 2012. (Chris Keane/Reuters)
Penske Racing driver A.J. Allmendinger listens to questions from reporters during the NASCAR Media Tour in Concord, N.C., on January 26, 2012. (Chris Keane/Reuters)

Motorsports

New Penske driver is the one to watch Add to ...

There's an old saying about timing being everything in the racing world and newly minted Penske driver A.J. Allmendinger has it on his side – literally.

That's because whenever anyone asks him for the time, the NASCAR Sprint Cup regular will be instantly reminded of his overall win in the 50th Rolex 24 at Daytona when he checks his new watch.

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“It's a cool, cool trophy to have,” said Allmendinger who received a special steel Rolex Cosmograph Daytona for the Jan. 28 victory driving for Michael Shank Racing.

“We had been close so many times with Michael Shank and I feel like we should have already had one, if not a couple of Rolex watches already, but it's one of those races that's just so tough. In 24 hours, there are so many things that can happen.”

“It was an amazing day and it's one of those things you never forget.”

Allmendinger along with Grand-Am drivers Oswaldo Negri and John Pew and IndyCar star Justin Wilson outpaced the field in a Ford Riley Daytona Prototype, crossing the line just 5.198 seconds ahead of the runner up team after 761 laps of the 5.73-km circuit, or 4,469 kilometres of racing.

Despite his historic victory, Allmendinger will be just another Sprint Cup driver in a few weeks when he returns to the scene of his triumph to prepare for the 54th Annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.

But again, timing played in his favour here too. The 29-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif., was coming off a breakthrough year in 2011 at the same time as he was released from his contract by Richard Petty Motorsport. Already on the radar of several teams, he got a huge break when Kurt Busch launched an embarrassing, profanity-laced tirade at a reporter after retiring from the 2011 season finale in Miami last November. When Busch left Penske soon after the incident, the door opened for Allmendinger, who joined the squad to replace the departed Busch in the No. 22 Pennzoil Dodge.

As a result, he heads into 2012 full of excitement after inking a deal with one of the biggest names in the racing business, Roger Penske.

“To have Mr. Penske say, ‘I want you in my race car’ and a sponsor like Shell Pennzoil that is used to having winners and champions in their cars gives me a lot of confidence,” he said.

“Now I have to go out there and win races. I feel like I am at the right place at the right time.”

But with the switch also comes expectations: Both Penske cars made the 10-race championship deciding Chase for the Cup playoff last year and that remains the team's goal for 2012.

Last year, No. 2 driver Brad Keselowski ended the season fifth overall while Busch was 11th.

With the season set to begin, Allmendinger feels his biggest adjustment will be fitting in with the Penske way and learning to work with a new crew chief, Todd Gordon, who will be in his first year heading a Sprint Cup team. For that reason, the new outfit will likely give him a bit of leeway in the first few races.

“There's definitely a grace period where we have to go out there and take time to get to know each other, but we know how this sport is now: We don't have a whole year,” he said.

“You just have to be consistent and that's what this sport is about. In a perfect world we'd win right away, but I think if we go out there and don't do anything stupid and hurt ourselves on points, we can be right there on the edge of the Chase or even in by just being solid and building on it.”

Toronto race fans might remember Allmendinger from his win on the streets of Exhibition Place in the 2006 IndyCar race while driving for the Forsythe Team. In what turned out to be his final year in open wheel, Allmendinger found himself dumped by the RuSport Team four races into the 2006 season and looked to be out of luck until Forsythe signed him to a deal for the rest of the schedule.

Allmendinger won five of his nine races with Forsythe, including his first three starts, but fell short of wrestling the title from eventual four-time champion Sébastien Bourdais. When contract negotiations soured between the driver and Forsythe, he announced a switch to NASCAR in 2007 where he joined the fledgling Red Bull outfit.

The move from open wheel to stock cars proved tough for Allmendinger who qualified for just 17 of the 36 races in 2007 and only managed to crack the top-20 three times. He ended the season 43rd overall in a series that allows 43 starters per race. It didn't help that the rookie stock car racer was trying to make his mark with a new team with limited experience.

Things gradually improved for the young Californian who climbed to 36th overall the next year, but not before Red Bull dumped him after 29 races in favour of Formula One reject Scott Speed. Allmendinger moved to Richard Petty Motorsport in 2009 where he raced until signing with Penske this season.

“The first couple of years were difficult as I tried to get my feet under me and figure out what NASCAR racing was all about,” he said about the transition from open wheel to NASCAR.

“It was a tough time and there were many times I thought, ‘Man, did I make the right decision?’ The cars are so different, the racing is so different, everything is different – you should almost start over. It would be almost easier to have never driven anything and learn to drive a stock car than it is knowing what you have been used to [in open wheel]and then trying to start over in a stock car, it's that difficult.”

Things improved at Petty in the past two years where Allmendinger feels he finally had a chance to develop his skills and learn in a competitive car. And it seems Allmendinger proved Red Bull wrong for giving up on him after his 15th place in 2011 was right behind his old outfit’s star driver, Kasey Kahne, and 10 slots ahead of its second driver, Brian Vickers, despite racing with a relatively resource poor Petty squad.

But it's not all roses, because replacing the anger-management-challenged Busch means his No. 22 Dodge may carry some unwanted baggage and possibly a bulls eye or two.

“Jimmie Johnson came over to me at Daytona [during NASCAR testing in January] and [said] 'I have to remember you are in that car' because he had so many run-ins with Kurt,” Allmendinger said.

“So I have to make sure everyone remembers there's a different guy in the No. 22.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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