Now reinstated after completing NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program, Allmendinger has been handed the opportunity to get back into action much sooner than anyone expected - he's missed just 13 races since his last pre-suspension appearance at Kentucky and will start Saturday night's race from 38th position after successfully making the field in qualifying.
"James has always been willing to give a guy a second chance," said Phoenix Racing general manager Steve Barkdoll. "He likes cars that go fast and we feel that AJ can [make them] do that ... When you get somebody like AJ who is kind of down on his luck but can go fast, it's kind of like a natural fit for us."
"I quickly found out I love this sport, and I missed it," said Allmendinger of his three months out of NASCAR competition. "I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world to be able to be a part of it, and to have a second opportunity to be here."
It's unclear who will take the #51 car moving forward. "We told Regan and AJ both that if they got in the car, it would probably be race-to-race," said Barkdoll. "I'm sure if AJ does a nice job we'll see him in the car next week at Kansas."
After that, Earnhardt will likely be back in the #88 and Smith once more knocking on the door to try his hand at the #51. Whether it goes to him or to Allmendinger for the final four races of the season - let alone what the team decided to do in 2013 - depends very much on what happens in the meantime.
Full qualifying results and Thursday practice times