My Brain on NASCAR: Doing the right thing pays in racing circles

col-cathyelliottEvery Tuesday, my email gets clogged up with NASCAR press releases. Tuesday is the day that the team publicists send out things like driver stats for the upcoming race, a brief recap of the previous weekends race, and maybe a quote or two. No offense to the hard-working team folks, but these releases are normally the sort of the thing you glance over for half a second – just in case — and then delete.

April 13 seemed to be just more of the same. Longtime NASCAR driver publicist and all-around cool girl Jennifer Chappelle sent a release letting me know that eight Kroger stores in the Richmond, Va. area would be hosting Fan Fest events later this month, in preparation for the upcoming race at Richmond International Speedway.

At one of the stores, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) driver AJ Allmendinger, driver of the No. 47 Kroger Chevy, would be stopping by for a personal appearance. “You never know if I’m going to be shopping with you, bagging groceries in a contest, or participating in a cake walk with young adults. And sometimes there are giveaways as well,” he said.

That’s when I got interested … and not because I have a soft spot for cake walks.

Many of you might remember that back in 2012, Allmendinger failed a mandatory drug test after testing positive for the amphetamine Adderall, which he said a friend told him was an energy supplement. As a result, NASCAR suspended him from competition, and ultimately he lost his job with Penske Racing.

Pay attention here, kids; this is the important part. There is a right way and wrong way to do things, and we have seen both in NASCAR.

When driver Jeremy Mayfield failed more than one drug test back in 2009, he fought back. Mayfield maintained his innocence over the course of a lengthy “disagreement” with NASCAR, but neither side would budge, and to this day Mayfield remains on the outside of racing, looking in.

NASCAR gets a bad rap sometimes thanks to its reputation as “the Hammer,” and its drug policy is understandably stringent, but it isn’t a death sentence. The “Road to Recovery” program requires a driver, working in tandem with a program administrator, to coordinate a plan that can include substance abuse counseling, treatment, or rehabilitation. There is no set time for the length of the program, which is tailored to the individual driver involved.

Mayfield refused to participate, but Allmendinger immediately agreed. The result? AJ entered the recovery program in July 2012 and was back on track, both literally and figuratively, by August. He drove part-time in 2013, and in 2014 returned to fulltime NSCS competition after being hired by JTG Daugherty Racing, his current team. And just to put a little sweet icing on his comeback cake, AJ also won his first NSCS race that same year, at Watkins Glen.

Earlier this season, Allmendinger announced that he had signed an extension with with JTG Daugherty Racing that will make him the driver of the #47 Chevy SS through the 2020 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race season.

“I have always said I have a verbal lifetime contract with JTG Daugherty Racing, but I want to announce today that I have officially signed a contract for a five-year deal,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to me because I love it here and love the family atmosphere Jodi (Geschickter), Tad (Geschickter) and Brad (Daugherty) have established. Not only do we have a family bond, we have a healthy future with some of the biggest and best brands in the business.”

My great friend Allen Smothers – the “Bad Boy of sports radio” – graciously allows me to serve as co-host (although silent partner might be a better description) on his Press Box radio show once a week. Together, Allen and I have come up with the theory that the three sports happenings people really care about are the Cinderella story, complete chaos, and the comeback.

The point of all this is not to rehash old controversies, but to point out how a single decision can mean the difference between bagging groceries for a living (and no, there’s nothing wrong with that!), or bagging groceries as part of a publicity appearance supported by a multi-million-dollar corporation and scores of faithful fans.

Well done, AJ Allmendinger. In the ongoing battle between organic and synthetic – i.e. paper vs.  plastic – you have proven yourself to be a real winner.

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