AJ Allmendinger has been reacquainting himself with an open wheel race car at Sebring International Raceway this week, driving the #2 Penske IndyCar in the first pre-season test session of 2013.

"My heart was beating fast and the first couple of runs the car was definitely driving me," admitted Allmendinger. "It slowly has come back to me. Everything feels real fast."

He was joined in chilly conditions at the Florida test circuit by the other two confirmed Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves, as well as Ganassi team mates Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Charlie Kimball together with seven other of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series drivers.

"Will and Helio have welcomed me into their race team with open arms and I'm definitely happy to be here," said Allemendinger, who also got to meet IndyCar icon AJ Foyt at the track for the first time. "It was an honour to meet the person I was named after, one of the greatest drivers of all time."

Allmendinger drove in the Champ Car World Series from 2004 until 2007 when he switched to stock car racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. He was competing for Roger Penske's Cup team in 2012 when he failed a random drugs test mid-season and was suspended from competition until he completed the mandatory Road to Recovery program.

Although he was fired from the Penske team, Allmendinger has since returned to NASCAR competition with four races at the end of 2012, and Roger Penske himself has remained supportive throughout and now seems set to back a possible Indianapolis 500 outing for Allmendinger in IndyCar - if the driver can readjust to the open wheel equipment, that is.

"A Cup car has more horsepower, but because of its weight that sensation of speed is a lot different," Allmendinger explained. "When you get an IndyCar on a road course, it feels like it has 1,500 horsepower," he said, adding that an IndyCar was much more physically demanding to drive than a Cup car.

The first step of the process of seeing whether Allmendinger is up to driving in the Indy 500 was to take part in the first track test of 2013, and he posted the 12th fastest time of the 13 drivers in action on Tuesday.

Even so, that was just a creditable 0.6s slower than the fastest man on track on the day, which was Takuma Sato in the #14 AJ Foyt Racing car. Sato's best lap of the day was 51.947s while Allmendinger's best effort was 52.618s, just ahead of Oriol Servia who was slowest of those taking part in an unwieldy-looking Panther-DRR car.

All things considered, Allmendinger was happy with the first day's work. "I'd love for it to lead to some races, especially Indy," he said afterwards. It is thought that Penske would initially like him to run in the Long Beach race and possibly the Barber Motorsports Park event as preparation for the Indy 500.

"We're not really testing AJ," explained Penske president Tim Cindric. "We're letting AJ test the car and the program to be prepared. If we run a third car, it's going to be with him."
Unofficial test times

1. #14 Takuma Sato AJ Foyt Racing 51.947s
2. #9 Scott Dixon Ganassi 52.017s
3. #12 Will Power Team Penske 52.153s
4. #10 Dario Franchitti Ganassi 52.332s
5. #18 Justin Wilson Dale Coyne Racing 52.327s
6. #11 Tony Kanaan KV Racing Technology 52.381s
7. #3 Helio Castroneves Team Penske 52.410s
8. #15 Graham Rahal Rahal Letterman Lanigan 52.413s
9. #83 Charlie Kimball Ganassi 52.439s
10. #78 Simona de Silvestro KV Racing Technology 52.442s
11. #67 Josef Newgarden Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing 52.498
12. #2 AJ Allmendinger Team Penske 52.618s
13. #22 Oriol Servia Panther Dreyer & Reinbold 52.690s

IndyCar also announced on Tuesday that the DW12 chassis will receive some safety upgrades ahead of the 2013 season.

Additional structural reinforcements are being added to the side of the monocoque at the shoulder height of the drivers, and the sides of the cockpits are being reinforced with a stronger synthetic polymer called Zylon. The changes to the safety cell will not be visible externally.

"In order to further reduce the risk of tilt, we needed to get a more even distribution of crash resistance from top to bottom. This is the purpose of the Side Impact Structure," explained Andrea Toso, head of research and development for Dallara.

The manufacturer has also has introduced new brake disc guards that are more robust and heat resistant than the 2012 model.

"The guard helps keep the rotors, which are made of carbon, from being damaged by the wheel during a typical 6-second pit stop for tires," said Will Phillips, IndyCar's vice president of technology. "This will allow our teams to run through their remaining inventory from 2012 at road and street events with no compromise of safety or performance."