AJ Allmendinger's first chance in seven years to drive a top-line open-wheel car got off to a light-hearted start on Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway. hn Tuesday.
"How do you get into this thing?" Allmendinger joked with the Team Penske crew ahead of his test run alongside team regulars. Helio Castroneves and Will Power.
"Just be careful you don't break anything," replied Penske Racing president Tim Cindric.
It's a return to the style of racing in which he has enjoyed his most success – in Champ Car competition in 2006, Allmendinger won five races, including three in a row, after being dismissed by RuSPORT and joining Forsythe Racing. He wound up third behind champion Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson in the standings.
Will Power, who competed against Allmendinger in the '06 Champ Car season, said he's already fitting in with the team.
"He's easy to get along with. When I raced him, he was very fast," the Australian said of Allmendinger. "That year, had he started with Forsythe, he probably would have won the championship. I'd love him as a teammate."
That attitude seemed to be the general view of drivers polled by IndyCar.com at Sebring, despite Allmendinger's contentious exit from NASCAR last year. He was suspended by the stock car sanctioning body last summer for failing a random drug test. Allmendinger duly completed NASCAR's Road to Recovery program and was reinstated in September, and has also been confirmed to be in good standing by IndyCar authorities.
“He's just a really fun guy to be around, easy-going and obviously fan favorite. He's quick as well and can back up all his kidding around off the track with the speed on the track,” said Wilson, who teamed with Allmendinger at Michael Shank Racing for last month's Rolex 24 At Daytona, and was also his teammate at RuSPORT back in '04.
“He'll get back up to speed quickly. It's the finer details of the car that takes time,” Wilson added. "I enjoy racing him and would love to do so again. I think he would bring some interest to the series.”
Four-time Champ Car champion Bourdais agreed.
"He's a tough racer,” said Bourdais, who joined new teammate Sebastian Saavedra in testing at Sebring on Monday. “He's fast and the records speak for themselves. We had some pretty serious battles. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out. Maybe he'll get back full time (in the series). (If so) he's going to be running at the front with one of the best cars.”
• RACER.com will have a full report from the day's testing at Sebring later today