AJ Allmendinger's 7-year absence from open-wheel racing showed during his first few laps of testing today for Team Penske at Sebring.
The 31-year-old had never used a hand clutch, nor was he familiar with the power delivering of the twin-turbo Chevy engine, but it didn't take long for the driver who set Champ Car alight in 2006 to tap into the raw talent that made him such a terror.
By the lunch break, and with 40 or so laps under his belt, Allmendinger smiled and joked with the crew as he looked at the timing monitor. Nestled between "D. Franchitti" and "J Wilson" with a 52.649-second jaunt around the 1.8-mile, 11-turn short course, the most important indicator of the Californian's performance was his pace relative to teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power.
Power, P2 with a 52.153-second tour, and Castroneves, P3 at 52.410 seconds, gave a glimpse of the speed and comfort level Allmendinger hopes to find by the end of the single-day test.
“For seven years of what I drove (in stock cars) and coming back here, the thing feels really quick,” said Allmendinger. “Steering is really quick; real physical to turn, which is what I remember. The first couple of runs, I was definitely being driven by the car. [I'm] kinda' getting up to speed and I'm trying to learn how to relax in the car, but it's been fun so far.”
Compared to bringing a 3800-pound Sprint Cup car under control in the braking zones, Allmendinger has been learning how to use the Dallara DW12's carbon brakes to their full potential.
“My NASCAR eyes…the first couple of runs were saying ‘there's no way you can brake that late,” he said with a laugh.
Allmendinger has a few more hours to acclimate himself with the car and team before shifting his attention to Daytona this weekend, but feels confident he'll be able to find more pace.
“Fortunately for me, between my teammates and the Penske organization in general, I know I got all the equipment around me,” he said. “It makes it easier for me to know, OK, just keep working up to the speed. The speed will be there when I get there. I just gotta keep learning and get up to that speed.”
If Allmendinger's impact on the Team Penske crew is any indicator of whether he'll be racing this year, it's clear everyone within the storied program would love to have the little spark plug pushing the team forward.