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Ben Smith

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Patience pays off for Allmendinger

– Patience. Now there’s an odd word for a cartoon-speed day.

There’s a word that would seem to fit Pole Day at Indy the way a Speedo fits a stegosaurus, but that was before Saturday dawned gray and wet and two hours of Pole Day circled the drain. A long day became longer then, going well beyond the sacred closing hour of 6 p.m., and it was hurry-up-and-wait followed by a lot of frantic dashing around as twilight came on.

So, yeah: Patience.

And doesn’t this young man over here know about that.

His name is AJ Allmendinger, and the last time you heard it, it was attached to the words “suspension” and “failed drug test.” That was last summer, when Allmendinger was still in one of Roger Penske’s NASCAR rides. But he showed red after taking Adderall, a prescription medication used to treat ADHD, and NASCAR suspended him.

A trip through NASCAR’s rehab program followed, after which Penske booted him after five seasons – though not, as it turned out, without also extending him a lifeline.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, and Allmendinger on the qualifying line in one of Penske’s Indy cars this time, his heart banging away on his ribcage.

“Beatin’ pretty fast,” he said later. “You know, it’s kind of funny when (people) say you’ve done this how many times this week. Well, yeah, but now it counts.”

And so out he went, sticking four laps at 227.761, which got him into the Fast 9. And, later still, at a little past 6:45, he laid down a 228.099 run.

It wasn’t the pole – hometown boy Ed Carpenter got that, breaking up a Penske-Andretti fistfight with a stunning 228.762 run for his own one-car team – but it was good enough to put Allmendinger in the middle of Row 2 for his first Indianapolis 500. And that tasted a lot like triumph for a man whose road back from scandal and failure demanded, yes, a helping and a half of patience.

“I think I’m just kind of taking it day by day and trying not get too high or too low,” Allmendinger said Saturday. “That’s something that Rick Mears and Helio (Castroneves) and Will (Power) and Roger (Penske) and all the guys; ... they just kind of say work on the program, stay even keel.

“It’s been tough to do because this place will mess with your mind watching people get drafts and not knowing where your car is and going out at the wrong time of day and being slower. So it’s pretty special.”

It’s also a return to his racing roots.

Before NASCAR, after all, Allmendinger was a formidable open-wheel racer, winning five races and making 14 podium finishes in CART and Champ Car as a 21-year-old phenom a decade ago. And so when Penske decided to field a third car in the IndyCar series, … well, suffice it to say bygones were bygones.

“I’m thrilled to be here,” Allmendinger said when it was done, “I’m thrilled to be next to these guys. I’m happy Roger is giving me a chance.”

After which, as if on cue, Allmendinger’s teammates, Helio Castroneves and Will Power, showed up. And here at the end of the longest of days, the whole business devolved into standup comedy – lots of jokes about Castroneves’ perfect hair (“That hair is impressive,” Allmendinger quipped), and the simple giddiness of men for whom the tension was done.

“Been a long day, people,” Allmendinger finally said, leaning into the mic.

He would know.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.