- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - 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.

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