INDIANAPOLIS — AJ Allmendinger is being mentioned as one of the favorites in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, even though it is his first time in the big race.
The Indy 500 rookie qualified fifth, ahead of Penske Racing teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves. His car has been so good that Power even used Allmendinger's setup for his own qualifying run.
"He's been the strongest of the three of us this month," Power said. "He definitely does have a shot to win the race."
It's been noticed beyond the Penske garages and throughout the paddock, with other drivers moving Allmendinger higher up on the list of contenders.
Justin Wilson, a former teammate of Allmendinger's in Champ Car and a current teammate on their Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona team, had no doubt Allmendinger would get comfortable quickly at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"He's come in and done a great job, and I thought he would – he adapts quicker than anyone I know to different situations," Wilson said. "Whether it's going from Champ Car to NASCAR or a sports car, or NASCAR to an Indy car, every year he jumps into a sports car and he's on the pace within a lap. His ability to adapt is impressive.
"He's with a good team, they've got the car sorted out, and he's done a great job getting the most out of the car. And he's also been developing the car, too, and helping the team. I never doubted he'd be able to do that."
Allmendinger left open-wheel after his five-win 2006 season to join NASCAR. He bounced around with a handful of teams before landing last year at Penske Racing in the best job of his life. But a failed NASCAR drug test got him suspended and Penske fired him.
Only Penske has a soft spot for the likeable Allmendinger, and has given him a second chance with this IndyCar opportunity.
Graham Rahal said Allmendinger would be a popular winner.
"I think everybody likes AJ, he's a good guy, deep down he's an open-wheel guy and has been his whole life," Rahal said. "You've got to give it to him, he's kind of lucked into a ride with the best team. He got a second opportunity with one of the best rides, and that's Roger, he's very loyal and has been extremely nice to AJ and given him a great opportunity."
Wilson said he wouldn't be surprised to see Allmendinger in Victory Lane on Sunday, and would go to congratulate him.
"I think it's totally possible. He's strong, he's good in traffic, he's in the right moment, he's more than capable, he's got a good drive and he can go win the bloody thing," Wilson said. "He's a good guy, he's made mistakes, but he's worked it out. So I'd be very happy for him. I'd also grab him around the neck and get him in a choke-lock."