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A.J. Allmendinger happy to be back in IndyCar (Until he can get back in NASCAR)
It will be yet another blow to IndyCar's popularity when Allmendinger heads back to NASCAR fulltime, which he will do first chance he gets
Seven years ago, A.J. Allmendinger was an oddity in the deteriorating world of U.S. open-wheel racing.

He was an American.

Way back in 2006, when the series that plays in Long Beach each April was known as Champ Car, the aggressive driver from Las Gatos was one of two Americans in the series and the Long Beach Grand Prix. The other, Jimmy Vasser, was driving his last race before becoming a team owner. There were just 18 cars in the '06 race, one of the low points in series history.

Allmendinger's day in Long Beach was a low point personally, too. Paul Tracy took the first turn on the first lap like he was driving a bulldozer and took out four cars, including his own and A.J.'s.

Allmendinger recovered to win five races in 2006 - Portland, Cleveland, Toronto, Denver and Road America - to raise an American flag alongside the checkered flag.

Then he left open wheel for NASCAR. It took the unification of the two warring camps, Champ and IRL, for the sport to regain its feet last year with the best season since the CART era.

And now Allmendinger is back. He's driving for Team Penske on Sunday and also will drive the Indy 500 for the legendary team owner.

"I always paid attention to what was going on in IndyCar," Allmendinger said. "I always loved driving IndyCar. I didn't leave and forget about it because I had a lot of friends still involved.

"I was named after A.J. Foyt, so it was always my dad's and my dream to drive open wheel. It's always been great racing. We all wish the split had never happened. It cost one of the best forms of racing 15 years of great competition because the talent was split and a lot of good drivers had to watch (the Indy 500) on television."

Allmendinger, whose first win was driving in the Atlantic Series in Long Beach in 2003, left because it made sense. He was coming off a great year, Champ Car was evaporating like skunky gas and NASCAR was the hot place to be.

His NASCAR career never evolved into what he wanted, but he has no regrets over his decision.

"Not at all," he said. "For me, it's always about looking forward. You just learn from your experiences. If I don't leave (IndyCar) I never get a chance to drive for Richard Petty. Coming back, now I get a chance to drive for Roger Penske.

"You can't ever change your path. I feel fortunate for all of the experiences I've had."

Allmendinger had 29 top 10 s and five top fives in stocks, his best finish a second. NASCAR competition is fierce and the learning curve can be difficult. He also tested positive for adderall, a banned stimulant that treats people with ADD, and had to ride our a suspension.

Penske offered Allmendinger the ride because the owner always is looking for the best talent. Allmendinger drove on IndyCar's last stop in Alabama and qualified 10 th but finished down the track. He'll drive Indy and then he and Penske will start to talk about the balance of the season.

"I'm not here to waste Roger or IndyCar's times," he said. "I'm not just running laps. I want to compete.

"(Alabama) was pretty good. I had a good pace and was in the thick of it and was in the top 10 early. I was nervous about how I'd do.

"I'm still learning. I'm nowhere near where I want to be competitively, but I enjoy the challenge. There are no hacks out there driving. IndyCar is much more competitive now. Everyone is fast."

His experience in Long Beach will be an asset because little about the course has changed since he last drove here. The layout is the same.

"Long Beach was always one of my favorite races," Allmendinger said. "It's such a good atmosphere, a place where the energy level of the crowd is always great.

"Long Beach always feels like more of an event than a race. The only different is there's more cars and more traffic."

Allmendinger isn't done with NASCAR. IndyCar hasn't settled all of its issues and NASCAR still is the dominant series in terms of exposure. But he's open to more IndyCar races.

"It's a process," he said. "Hopefully I'll get up to speed quickly."

In a best-case scenario, he'll get up on the podium. Long Beach Press Telegram

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