(Eds: With AP Photos.) By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer AJ Allmendinger landed the ride of his life when Penske Racing grabbed him during the offseason after Kurt Busch split with the organization.
On paper, it doesn't seem as if Allmendinger has done very much with his golden opportunity.
In the NASCAR garage, everybody knows better.
Allmendinger has never been stronger in NASCAR than he is now, even though he doesn't have the results to show for his improvement. He sits 22nd in the Sprint Cup standings after 11 races, and has just one top-10 finish vs. four finishes of 32nd or worse.
But he's also led 99 laps, won a pole and qualified inside the top-four four times this season. Last Saturday, he won the pole for the qualifying event before the Sprint All-Star race, only to get a flat tire in the warm-up laps.
''A flat tire before we come to green? I mean, we've got to do something to change our luck up,'' he said.
Allmendinger had to pit as the field went green to have his tire changed, and it dropped him to last in the 22-car field. What happened next may be a sign that his luck is finally about to turn. He drove his way back into contention, and after chasing Jamie McMurray around Charlotte Motor Speedway for several laps, he made a pass for second place and transferred into the $1 million main event.
Although Allmendinger wound up 11th in the All-Star race, he was competitive and is now looking ahead to the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night at Charlotte.
''We've had fast race cars, we just need a little bit of luck,'' said Allmendinger, adding the All-Star race ''gives me a good amount of confidence. I'm excited to go to the 600.''
He should be, based on what he's shown so far this season, his first with a competitive team since leaving Champ Car after a five-win 2006 season.
Allmendinger was welcomed into NASCAR by rookie team Red Bull Racing, which botched his development in a new series. He was let go after two seasons, hired by Richard Petty Motorsports, then tried his hardest to keep moving forward despite three seasons of chaos as Petty needed outside help to keep his organization afloat.
Allmendinger continued to improve, and marked last season with a career-best 10 top-10 finishes and a 15th-place finish in the final Sprint Cup standings.
He got the break of his life roughly a month after the season ended, when Penske Racing called to offer him the No. 22 seat that had unexpectedly come open. It was a great ride - Busch had averaged two wins a season, and consistently made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship - with an organization committed to winning its first Cup title.
And even though his results don't show it, Allmendinger has been off and running since joining the team.
''We've had a lot of speed pretty much everywhere we've went, and even when we do struggle, our struggle is I would say 15th to 17th place,'' Allmendinger said. ''It's hard to look at the points and look at the results and take positives out of it. But ultimately this is more competitive than I've ever been. I'm up front a lot more than I've ever been, qualifying a lot better.
''The results, for whatever reason, whether it's our own failures or getting caught up in a wreck that we had nothing to do with, it's just the way it is. It's the way this sport can be sometimes.''
Team owner Roger Penske has been impressed with Allmendinger, and believes the organization itself has played a role in his difficult races. For example, Allmendinger won the pole and led 44 laps at Kansas, only to finish 32nd after a throttle linkage broke.
''We're excited about AJ, and we believe we've let him down at times this season,'' Penske said. ''But that team is showing every sign of being contenders here soon, and capable of winning races.''
Allmendinger believes the best is yet to come. Penske promoted Todd Gordon from the Nationwide Series to crew chief the No. 22 car this season, and Gordon and Allmendinger have only had 10 points races together so far. But he believes Penske is committed to making the team a winner.
''I forget it's only my 10th race with the team, it's only the 10th race for Todd Gordon ever crew chiefing the Cup car,'' Allmendinger said. ''Once we kind of get everything together and we can put a full race in, I feel like we'll have a chance to win a lot of races. The toughest thing is just looking at those points.
''Roger, when it comes to a team owner, he's the best I've ever had ... knowing how this sport is and having patience. I'm the one up there (saying) `We've got to go now,' and he's the one like `It's OK. We'll be fine.' When you have a team owner like that and an organization around you that says that, it makes it a little bit easier.''