AJ Allmendinger chose a life on the road, but that path took him back home to his roots this weekend.
The Los Gatos native qualified 17th for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Toyota/Save Mart 350 at his home track in Sonoma. He was looking forward to the challenges of the 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course every year, but has yet to finish in the top 5 in Wine Country in four previous attempts. He came in ninth place.
"In the end, it's a slick race track, so you're out there trying to conserve your rear tires. It's easy to make a mistake and get off the race track," Allmendinger said. "For (110) laps) it's about making the least amount of mistakes possible, because track position is so critical. You want to be up front and when you drop to 10th on backward, everyone's trying to gouge each other."
Coming home is comforting for Allmendinger, but presents its own unique pressures.
"I grew up a couple hours from here. It's always a fun weekend," he said, "because you come back and see family and friends at the same point it's probably one of the toughest weekends because in the end you're still here to do a job and win the race and it's tough to split those two things."
Now in his fifth full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Allmendinger is still looking for his first victory. The 2012 season started with such energy after he signed a one-year deal with Penske Racing to replace the outrageous — and sometimes uncensored — Kurt Busch.
Allmendinger hasn't been lectured by NASCAR officials as often as Busch, but he hasn't brought home as many podium finishes either.
With a career-best second-place finish in the Goody's Fast Relief 500 in Week 6 this season, Allmendinger was ready to reward Penske's faith in him. He hasn't been able to crack the top 10 since then, however. He started from the pole in the STP 400, but finished 32nd.
"We've had the speed at times, but not the luck," Allmendinger said.
After Allmendinger's dad took the training wheels off his bicycle, AJ went almost right into racing and for the early part of his career targeted a path toward open wheel stardom in the former Champ Car Series. Then his plans took an unexpected turn.
He made the surprising move to NASCAR in 2007 and ran a partial schedule with Gillette/Evernham Racing. His best finish in 17 races was 15th place in the Bank of America 500 that year.
Allmendinger has five top 5 finishes in his NASCAR career, including one at Watkins Glen — NASCAR's only other road course. But every weekend is a struggle not only to finish strong, but to prove he belongs.
Does he finally feel at home in NASCAR?
"It's a brutal home at times," he joked. "For me I feel fortunate I've been able to drive a lot of different race cars. I would never change that for anything. NASCAR is the place I wanted to be, that's why I came here in 2007.
"To me, it's the toughest racing series in the world. Plus the competition level, when it comes to trying to figure out those race cars and going to all different types of race tracks … This is where I want to be. I've wanted to be here a long time. … I'd love to be here a long time."