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Allmendinger caps big offseason with victory at Daytona
Grand Am Daytona 24 A Heal
Michael Shank Racing drivers, from left to right, England's Justin Wilson, Brazil's Oswaldo Negri Jr., John Pew and AJ Allmendinger display their Rolex watches after winning the Grand-Am Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday in Daytona Beach, Fla. - photo by Associated Press

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — AJ Allmendinger won five races during the 2006 season in Champ Car, then walked away hoping to launch a new career in NASCAR.
    He was at the top of his game when he left open-wheel, and figured he'd make a smooth and successful transition to stock cars.
    Instead, he suffered through a miserable five years.
    Now, in what seems like a blink of an eye, it has all turned around for Allmendinger.
    No driver has had a better offseason than "The 'Dinger," who landed the ride of a lifetime right before Christmas when Penske Racing picked him to fill the seat left suddenly open when the team split with former NASCAR champion Kurt Busch.
    Then he opened the 2012 racing season with an impressive victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Allmendinger was the anchor for Michael Shank Racing, and used a gritty final stint — he was behind the wheel almost three hours at the end — to give longtime friend Shank his first victory in nine tries in the prestigious endurance event.
    It was Allmendinger's first major racing victory since he walked away from Champ Car at the end of the 2006 season.
    "It's always cool to be me," Allmendinger quipped when asked about the last five weeks.
    Then he quickly turned serious.
    "No, I'm just kidding. The last five years, it's actually (stunk) to be me."
    It was indeed a struggle as Allmendinger went from the top of one series to the bottom of another.
    On paper, a deal with upstart Red Bull Racing seemed too good to pass up. The deep-pocketed team was making its entrance into NASCAR and it wanted Allmendinger to drive one of its two cars.
    It was a disaster from the very beginning.
    Red Bull wasn't ready to race in the elite Sprint Cup Series, and even worse, it had no development plan for Allmendinger, who was brand new to stock cars. Most open-wheel drivers have been eased into NASCAR with races in either the second-tier Nationwide Series, the Truck Series, or the non-NASCAR affiliated ARCA Series.
    But Allmendinger was thrown right to the wolves, and it became obvious immediately that the team and the driver were in very much above their heads.
    Both Allmendinger and teammate Brian Vickers struggled to even qualify for races that season, and missing out on the events further slowed Allmendinger's development. It didn't take long for him to wonder if he'd made a huge mistake in moving to NASCAR. But the open-wheel leagues were in turmoil, and not even after the merger of Champ Car with the IndyCar Series did Allmendinger know for sure where he belonged.
    He called that 2007 season, "Hell. Honestly, it was the worst year of my life when it came to my career.
    "There were plenty of times in my bus on Friday, (after) missing a race, it was either, 'Should I go back to IndyCar or slit my wrists?'" he said. "It sounds kind of over the top, but I knew I wanted to be in the Sprint Cup Series. That's where the best of the best was. With the two series still split, I had done what I did in Champ Car, and at the point, the IRL wasn't appealing to me. I had a great opportunity to go to the Sprint Cup Series.
    "It was just a tough couple of years. The last few years have been tough."