By DAN GELSTON, Associated Press
LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Days after he was dumped by Penske Racing, A.J. Allmendinger found plenty of support from the drivers in the garage.
The backing of his peers was the least of his problems.
It's the prospect of a driver who has never won a Sprint Cup race and flunked a drug test trying to coax another major sponsor and owner to give him a second chance at Cup racing. He may return to the sport, just never again with a ride like he had at Penske.
"I think he'll be back in a Cup car. Will it be a good Cup car? I don't think so," driver Denny Hamlin said.
Allmendinger was thrust from NASCAR obscurity into infamy once NASCAR suspended him indefinitely for a positive drug test in late June. Team owner Roger Penske fired Allmendinger this week and gave pinch-driver Sam Hornish Jr. the keys to the No. 22 for the "foreseeable future."
"I can see a long time. But that doesn't mean my eyesight and theirs is the same," a smiling Hornish said.
Hornish has an unexpected second act at Penske because of Allmendinger's misfortune. This time, Hornish plans to keep the ride for this season and beyond.
"It's been an interesting month, that's for sure," Hornish said.
There was plenty of talk Friday about the driver who wasn't there, probably more than there ever was before about Allmendinger on his best weekend.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were among the drivers rooting for Allmendinger to make a comeback. Tony Stewart said Allmendinger deserves a second chance. Carl Edwards said he'd be fine with racing against Allmendinger if he made a return.
"I think people like a comeback story and if A.J. is committed to the process and getting back, I'm sure there will be some opportunities," Johnson said.
Allmendinger's only way to come back to the series is to complete NASCAR's rehabilitation program, and he pledged to do so in a statement this week so he can compete again "in the near future." He was suspended July 7, just hours before the race at Daytona and forcing Penske to bring in Hornish at the last moment. His backup urine sample, tested last week, confirmed the initial positive test. That sealed his fate at Penske.
He can only hope it hasn't ended his career.
But top seats are scarce in NASCAR and the millions of dollars needed to fund a team have tightened as sponsors are looking for big names and sure things. Sometimes, even that winning combination isn't enough to pry open the corporate wallets and keep a team afloat over 36 races, test sessions and expensive stock cars.
"These companies are just not willing to take the risks like they used to on a young driver, much less someone with a bad history," Hamlin said. "It's going to be a tough road. I'm sure we'll see him back in the Cup series at some point."
Allmendinger is the second Sprint Cup Series driver suspended under the tightened policy implemented in 2009. Jeremy Mayfield was the first driver, and he unsuccessfully sued to have the results overturned.
Now, Hornish gets another shot after losing out to Allmendinger for the empty ride left by Kurt Busch in the offseason. Hornish struggled through three full Sprint Cup seasons but spent most of last year out of the car. He made only one Cup start and ran 13 Nationwide races.
This season, Penske had Hornish running the full Nationwide schedule. He was set to race in the Nationwide Series race Saturday at Iowa Speedway.
Hornish turned 33 on July 2. He was called in a pinch for the July 7 race at Daytona.
"My mom asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I told her I didn't know what I needed other than some opportunities I hadn't had in a while," he said. "She told me she'd be praying for it. Lo and behold, I got it. I guess the power of prayer is pretty good."
Hornish admits to a twinge of discomfort with getting a ride under these circumstances.
Some driver was going to get the shot. May as well be him.
"It's a tough thing," he said. "I'd love to be in it next year if I get the opportunity, so I'm going to work hard at it."
Hornish needs strong results to keep that ride in 2013. He's facing a deep crop of potential drivers, including Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and former Chase driver Brian Vickers.
The only sure thing for 2013 is that it won't be Allmendinger.
Dan Gelston can be followed at http://twitter.com/apgelston
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