AJ Allmendinger will be back driving a Sprint Cup car this weekend, days after the Daytona 500 went on without him.
But his ride at Phoenix Racing is only guaranteed for three early season races, starting Friday when he qualified 23rd for Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway.
So after his best opportunity in NASCAR slipped away, a chance to go in another direction seemed appealing. All the more so because it's with the same man who never lost faith in Allmendinger, even after firing the Californian from his Sprint Cup ride in the wake of a failed drug test.
Allmendinger, 31, tested with Roger Penske's powerful IndyCar team on Feb. 19 at Sebring International Raceway. It was his first time in an open-wheel car in seven years, and the team's offer came with a view toward perhaps giving him a ride in the Indianapolis 500 in May.
"It always meant a lot," Allmendinger said of his relationship with Penske. "After it all happened (in 2012), it wasn't like he went silent forever and I didn't hear from him. He was always checking up on me."
Penske Racing president Tim Cindric expressed confidence and hope that a sponsorship package might come together.
"We're really not testing him," Cindric said at Sebring during the test. "It's really allowing him to get familiar with these cars in case we can put something together to run Indy and maybe some other races. … The fact that he can run 40 laps and be on pace with the rest of these guys is a good sign."
Penske's Will Power, the 2010 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg champion and a former rival when he and Allmendinger drove in the Champ Car series, was impressed.
"I'm learning stuff from him already on his first day," Power said. "He has a lot of natural ability. He's an animal behind the wheel. … I'd love to see him full time in the series."
As for stock cars, Allmendinger is trying to rebound after NASCAR suspended him last season when he failed a drug test (he said he mistakenly took Adderall). While his Penske teammate Brad Keselowski went on to win the Sprint Cup title, Allmendinger scraped together a few rides with underfunded Phoenix Racing after his suspension ended.
Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart expressed support last week.
"AJ hasn't been out of it that long. I honestly think he'll pick it right back up, is my gut feeling. … Roger's a smart business guy. He's not dumb. He has always been loyal to his drivers. I think this just shows how deep that loyalty goes."
And as happy as he was to sit in a top-flight IndyCar ride, even for a day, Allmendinger said: "It was the fact that he (Penske) asked me to drive a car for him that means more than anything. Back in a stock car, a Nationwide car, a prototype (sports car) if he had one, just to get back in one of his cars. He doesn't have to do that. There's no reason for him to do that, honestly, except the fact that he does believe in me and wants me to be a part of it.
"It's not like I made his life easy. And he still has the faith."
Allmendinger's deal with Phoenix Racing this year didn't include the Daytona 500. He didn't even want to watch qualifying, but not because it hurt.
"I just honestly think Daytona 500 qualifying is the most boring thing on the planet," he said with a laugh. "I don't even watch it when I'm there. … It wasn't like I was trying to avoid it."
As for the rest of this season, Allmendinger said he just wants the best opportunity, wherever that is.
"(Penske) always tells me, I don't have to set the world on fire right now," he said. "I still don't believe that though. I still want to."
Times staff writer Matt Baker contributed to this report.