Roger Penske, needing nothing short of a miracle for Helio Castroneves to win the IndyCar title in this weekend’s season finale, will run a third car for AJ Allmendinger in what’s presumed to be a strategic move to aid their championship chances.
But if the plan is for Allmendinger to try to snatch points away from championship leader Scott Dixon, Penske isn’t showing his hand.
“I thought it would be a good idea to have Izod in the last race of the series, so he’s going to run the No. 2 car,” Penske deadpanned Saturday night before the NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Izod is a Penske sponsor and was on Allemendinger’s car in two of the five previous IndyCar races Allmendinger ran this season. Izod also is the entitlement sponsor for the IndyCar Series, and announced last month it would not return in 2014.
So Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., is the last for Izod. But that’s hardly the real reason Penske is entering Allmendinger, even though he tried to stick to that story Saturday night.
Castroneves had a 49-point lead over Dixon going into last weekend’s doubleheader races in Houston. Gearbox issues in both races has Castroneves trailing Dixon by 25 points heading into the finale, and Penske is now bringing Allmendinger in a third car.
Dixon, who will be seeking his third IndyCar championship, will have Alex Tagliani as his teammate while Dario Franchitti continues to recover in an Indianapolis hospital from injuries suffered in a last-lap crash at Houston. Franchitti broke two bones in his spine, his right ankle and suffered a concussion when his car sailed into the fence in Sunday’s race.
“We’re excited about having AJ, obviously having another car in the race is important to us, and I’m surely sorry to hear about Dario,” Penske said. “He and I have communicated. He said he’s sore, but he’s on the road to recovery. Tagliani will be a real force in that car. He’s been strong on the ovals before, so I look forward to seeing how strong he’ll be in the 10 car.”
And that’s all Penske had to say about bringing Allmendinger to Fontana, where Castroneves will be trying to win his first title.
It’s not surprising that in need of assistance, Penske turned to Allmendinger, the driver he has maintained a close relationship with despite last year’s suspension from NASCAR for failing a random drug test. It ultimately cost him his job with Penske in NASCAR just halfway through his first season with the team, but Penske stood by him and Allmendinger’s comeback began last September when Penske had him at Fontana as his guest at the IndyCar finale.
Allmendinger was reinstated to NASCAR, where he’ll drive full-time next season for JTG Daugherty Racing, and Penske entered him in the Indianapolis 500 and five other IndyCar races.
“We started with AJ, we had an issue, we worked it through, he came to Indy and did a great job,” Penske said. “I felt he was a member of the team. These drivers are like sons I guess, and you go through a lot with your kids. This was a difficult one for me because I had to take him out of the car. On the other hand, I certainly kept my arm around his shoulders and tried to put him in the right direction. I think it’s certainly been fruitful and the outcome has been terrific.”
With Allmendinger headed back to a full-time job in NASCAR, Penske said he’s had no discussions with the driver for IndyCar races in 2014.