INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - When he came out of the fourth corner with the lead at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and gazed down the long front straightaway, A.J. Allmendinger remembers feeling his entire body go numb.
For just a moment, he forgot he was in the middle of a race.
"Pretty special moment," Allmendinger would say later. "My mind was racing and I could feel my heart beating really fast, and that's a special moment I'll never forget."
After losing his Sprint Cup ride following a failed drug test, Allmendinger made the most of his second chance from Roger Penske on Sunday. He drove to the front from his starting spot in the middle of the second row, led for 23 laps and wound up seventh in his debut at the Indianapolis 500.
If not for a seatbelt that came undone, he may have finished even better.
"Early on it was a struggle," said Allmendinger, who fell far back in the field at the start of the race. "I got myself calmed down, thought about what I needed to do to pass guys, and once I figured it out, it was phenomenal. I could drive by guys at will when I wanted to."
Indeed, it turned out to be a memorable day after a forgettable year.
Allmendinger had landed the ride of his life with Penske in the Sprint Cup series when the random drug test by NASCAR came back positive. He's said it was caused by a strange pill given to him by a friend to battle fatigue that turned out to be Adderall, but the explanation didn't seem to matter a whole lot. He was suspended and subsequently fired by the team.
He went through NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program, and Penske supported him the entire time _ even after letting him go. And when Penske called Allmendinger to gauge his interest in running in the Indianapolis 500, all he could say was, "Yes, sir. Whatever you want, sir."
"I'll be honest," Allmendinger said Sunday, "it's been pretty special."
Allmendinger wasn't the only rookie to make a special run at Indianapolis.
Carlos Munoz started on the middle of the front row for Andretti Autosport in his first IndyCar race. Several drivers had expressed concern about his inexperience, but the Colombian came home in the exact same place he started, finishing second behind feel-good winner Tony Kanaan. The race ended under caution when Dario Franchitti wrecked with two laps to go.
"I really wanted to fight for the win," the 21-year-old Munoz said. "Maybe I could win, maybe not, but I wanted to fight. I have nothing to be ashamed of."
Nor does Allmendinger, who made the most of his one-shot ride.
Allmendinger's parents attended their first Indianapolis 500 in 1979, when they camped out on the grass to watch Rick Mears win the first of his four races. They were so smitten by A.J. Foyt that, two years later, they named their newborn son after their favorite driver.
Allmendinger gradually climbed through the ranks to the Champ Car series, where he won five times in 2006. But a fracture within the sport drove him to stock cars, and his dream of taking the green flag in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" was put on hold.
He never could have imagined it would come this year, under these circumstances.
"The start of it was not a good experience, though," Allmendinger said. "I was like, the biggest sissy on the planet. I probably had the worst start in Indy history, from fifth back to like, 20th on the back straightway. The first stint I was struggling."
J.R. Hildebrand crashed on Lap 4, and that gave Allmendinger a chance to breath.
"Once the yellow came out, I just calmed down and thought about what I needed to do to make passes," he said. "Once I figured it out, the car was a rocket ship. It was phenomenal."
Then his seatbelt came loose and Allmendinger was forced to pit from the lead. His team quickly tightened it again, but he was shuffled back in the pack and out of sequence.
In Allmendinger's opinion, that misfortune may have cost him the race.
"It just popped," he said. "After that, we had to pit early every time. I'd come back out seventh or eighth and have to pick my way back through."
Even then, Allmendinger thought he had a chance to steal the win.
Right up until the final caution came out.