Suspended NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger was released from Penske Racing on Wednesday, opening a seat in the organization's No. 22 car for the second time in as many years.
The Penske team announced the firing in a statement, which came after Allmendinger and team owner Roger Penske met face-to-face. Allmendinger is suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for failing a random drug test, and must complete a mandatory recovery program before he can hope to be reinstated by the sanctioning body. There is no concrete timeline for his return.
"Penske Racing fully supports NASCAR's substance abuse policy, and we are disappointed with AJ's positive drug test results," Roger Penske said. "AJ is a terrific driver, a good person and it is very unfortunate that we have to separate at this time. We have invested greatly in AJ and we were confident in his success with our team. The decision to dismiss him is consistent with how we would treat any other Penske Racing team member under similar circumstances. As AJ begins NASCAR's 'Road to Recovery' program, we wish him the best and look forward to seeing him compete again in NASCAR."
Sam Hornish Jr., who has piloted the No. 22 Dodge in every Sprint Cup race since Allmendinger was first suspended July 7, will continue to do so this weekend at Pocono Raceway and for the foreseeable future, Penske said. The team will evaluate its options for a driver for the No. 22 car for the 2013 season.
Allmendinger landed the No. 22 ride after former driver Kurt Busch split with the Penske organization following last season. Allmendinger had a one-year contract with the team, and stood 23rd in points before he was suspended. The 30-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif., has five career top-five finishes at NASCAR's highest level since moving over from the open-wheel ranks.
"Effective today, I have been released from Penske Racing as driver of the No. 22 Dodge Charger," Allmendinger said in a statement. "I wish to thank Mr. Penske, Penske Racing, their sponsors, and especially all the of the No. 22 team for the opportunity they provided me and for their support in this difficult time. I also, again, would like to thank all the fans that really have been awesome through this. I apologize for the distraction, embarrassment, and difficulties that my current suspension from NASCAR has provided. As I stated last week, I have begun NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and look forward to using those resources and its completion to compete again in NASCAR in the near future."
Speaking to media prior to Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Penske stressed his company's own substance-abuse policy, and said he's released employees who have tested positive. As an independent contractor, Allmendinger was not subject to testing by Penske, but the car owner said he would have to take into account how he would react if the offender were one of his regular employees.
"We have to weigh that in," he said then. There also seems to be no shortage of suitors for the ride in the No. 22 car, which won races and qualified for the Chase when Busch was behind the wheel, and has solid primary sponsorship from Shell/Pennzoil.
"Quite honestly, our phone is ringing off the hook with people who are interested in the ride in the 22," Penske said Sunday. "At this point, from my perspective, I've got a very open mind. But I want to sit down with [Allmendinger], which is the only fair way to do it, and determine what is the best thing for the team and what is the best thing for him. Because obviously, we have a lot invested in him to this date, and he has a lot invested in the sport, and I want to see him land on his feet. But I've got to look at things from the overall standpoint."