Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What a turnaround it has been for A.J. Allmendinger during the past 10 months.
Allmendinger suffered a major career setback last July when he was suspended by NASCAR for failing a drug test. It eventually led to his dismissal from Penske Racing's team in the Sprint Cup Series.
After reuniting with owner Roger Penske earlier this year to drive one of his Indy cars, Allmendinger is about to achieve one of his racing dreams, competing in the Indianapolis 500.
This past Saturday, Allmendinger finished fifth in Indy 500 qualifying. He will start in the middle of row 2 for the 97th running of this prestigious race, which is scheduled for Sunday. Allmendinger's teammate, Will Power, starts on the outside of that same row, while Helio Castroneves from Penske is positioned in the middle of row 3, as he attempts to win the Indy 500 for the fourth time.
"I'm happy to have the opportunity to be here with Team Penske and for Roger to give me the opportunity to kind of live out a dream and to be here with a no better team than Team Penske," Allmendinger said. "It's kind of a dream come true."
Allmendinger's biggest dream, though, would be to win the Indy 500. He is one of three rookies in this year's 33-car starting field. Carlos Munoz from Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Tristan Vautier are the others.
Eight drivers have won the Indy 500 in their rookie year, with Castroneves the most recent one to do it in 2001.
Could Allmendinger become the ninth rookie to win it?
"This is kind of a step-by-step process day by day, and for me right now lap by lap," he said. "I don't allow myself to think what is it going to be like when I come off the corner to win the race. There are so many things that's got to happen in this race to even have an opportunity to win."
Just getting through the first segment in qualifying and then advancing into the final segment, where the nine fastest qualifiers battled for the pole position, was a difficult process for Allmendinger.
Power and Allmendinger were first and second, respectively, in practice prior to the start of qualifying. But rain delayed qualifying by two-and-a-half hours, and track conditions changed considerably. That raised concerns for Allmendinger, particularly with him slated as the fourth driver in the qualifying order. His four-lap average of 227.761 mph during the opening segment was good enough to get him into the "fast nine" shootout.
"For me, the first round was more nerve-racking than the second," Allmendinger said. "I had never done that before, gone out there in four laps and made it count, especially after the rain. Being one of the early cars out for me was more nerve-racking, and once I got in the top nine, I had hoped maybe some miracle would happen, and we'd find that speed to get the pole. I was just happy to be in the top nine, and whatever we got from there, I was going to start no worse than the third row."
Allmendinger turned in a four-lap average of 228.099 mph during the shootout. Ed Carpenter's average of 228.762 mph earned him the pole for this year's Indy 500.
In March, Penske announced that Allmendinger would drive for the team in at least two IndyCar races this season, including the Indy 500. He made his first start in the April 7 event at Barber Motorsports Park road course in Birmingham, Ala. He finished 19th there. Penske later added the April 21 race on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., to Allmendinger's limited schedule, where he finished 23rd. He is entered for the June 1-2 dual events in Detroit.
In preparation for his IndyCar debut, Allmendinger drove a Penske car in preseason testing at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla., and at Barber. He had competed in the Champ Car World Series from 2004-06, scoring five wins and making 14 podium appearances.
"It's been a tough challenge," he said. "I feel like the first two races I've had decent speed in the race car, decent race pace. I haven't had the finishes to show it, but Will and Helio have helped me out a lot since I have come back, to really just bring me into the race team and make me feel like actually a member of the race team, not just a part-time, third-time car.
"It makes me feel like part of the team, and, hopefully, there's little things that I've brought to the team that help them - my energy level, excitement, charm and good looks."
In addition to his IndyCar duties, Allmendinger is sharing driving duties with Regan Smith in the No. 51 car for Phoenix Racing in Sprint Cup this year. Last September, NASCAR reinstated Allmendinger after he successfully completed the sanctioning body's "Road to Recovery Program." He drove the 51 in four of the final six races last season.
Smith is scheduled to drive the 51 in Sunday's 600-mile Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Allmendinger has no intentions of attempting Indianapolis and Charlotte on the same day, at least not in 2013.
"This year wasn't the right situation to try it," Allmendinger said. "I think there's so many things that have to line up perfectly to be able to make it happen, and do it the right way, not just to say do it. And that's the big thing. Maybe one year the right opportunity is going to show up and everything falls into place at the right time, and that's the right year to do it."
For now, Allmendinger is dreaming of the possibility of being the next driver to win the Indy 500 and be awarded the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.
"It would be special to have my face on that trophy and have that trophy in your trophy case," he said. "Once you become an Indy 500 winner, that will never be taken away. You're part of a special club. And that to me is what makes this race so amazing is the fact that it doesn't matter who you say it to, you're an Indianapolis 500 champion. That's pretty special."