How do you find just the right gift to say "thank you" to a man who seemingly has everything? That's the dilemma A.J. Allmendinger has faced since billionaire team owner Roger Penske gave him a second chance to redeem himself following last year's embarrassing suspension for violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy.
Saturday, Allmendinger finally found the way. It took two green-white-checker restarts and five extra laps (55 in total), but he easily earned both his first career NASCAR and Nationwide Series win in the Johnsonville Sausage 200 Presented by Menards at Road America.
"This is the only way I could repay him," Allmendinger said of Penske. "It's just cool to win for Roger. It's what I've wanted since last year. … I wish he was here to be able to say, 'Thank you, boss, I got one for you.'"
It was Allmendinger's first start in a Nationwide Series race since 2008. But he's no stranger to victory lane at the 4-mile Road America road course, having won there in the now-defunct Champ Car World Series in 2006.
"It's my favorite track now," Allmendinger said with a smile. "It's a lot of fun. This track is still the same racetrack I remember. The same characteristics still apply to both race cars. The track is still the same thing with how you have to get into the corners and where the grip levels are in the corners."
Earlier in the afternoon, Allmendinger won the Coors Light Pole Award with a lap of 109.233mph, his first pole in nine career Nationwide Series races.
Penske asked Allmendinger before last month's Indianapolis 500 if he'd be interested in competing in a couple of upcoming Nationwide Series races. Saturday's race at Road America was the first and Allmendinger will race again August 17 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
"We're going to try and get another one there," Allmendinger said.
After Owen Kelly shoved series points leader Regan Smith into Billy Johnson, sending all three cars sailing on lap 47, Allmendinger took the green flag two laps later.
But that was short-lived as on lap 50, which should have been the second-to-last lap, Michael Annett took a spin, got stuck in rain-soaked grass and brought out the eighth and final caution flag.
On the second GWC restart on lap 54, Allmendinger's Ford Mustang dueled with Justin Allgaier's Chevrolet Camaro, but pulled away at the start of the 55th and final lap and won by a comfortable 1.372-second margin.
"I knew the car was quicker than everybody," Allmendinger said. "I still knew if I could get back the lead, as long as I didn't make any mistakes, they weren't going to pass me."
Allgaier finished second, followed by Parker Kligerman.
"I'm still not a road racer, I can assure you of that," Allgaier said. "Just watching A.J. and seeing some of the places he was able to go on that last green-white-checker, I still have some stuff to learn."
Added Kligerman, "It's just complete chaos most of the time near the end of the race and all you hope is you put yourself in the right place amongst the chaos and hopefully it goes your way."
Owen Kelly finished fourth, followed by Sam Hornish Jr.
Sixth through 10th were Brian Vickers, who will also race Sunday in the Sprint Cup road course race at Sonoma Raceway, followed by Kyle Larson, Cole Whitt, Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon.
Because of the tangle he had with Kelly and Johnson on lap 47, series points leader Regan Smith dropped from fifth to a disappointing 32nd-place finish, one lap down from the winner. Smith also saw his 58-point series lead cut to just a 28-point edge over Allgaier and 30 points in front of Hornish.
When asked if there are enough road courses (three) on the current Nationwide Series schedule, Allgaier and Kligerman were quick with their answers. "Not enough," Allgaier said. "If we had 10, that'd be perfect. I'm not a road racer, but I love it. I'm not good at it, but I love doing it."
Added Kligerman, "More, more. It'd be awesome (to have 10)."
Here's an interesting irony: the top three finishers are all current or former Penske Racing drivers. "Two former Penske drivers finishing second to a Penske car," Allgaier said. "I think A.J. did a great job today."