A.J.'s climbing Sprint Cup ladder

A.J. Allmendinger (right) talks with Matt Kenseth before a November Sprint Cup race in Phoenix....

A.J. Allmendinger (right) talks with Matt Kenseth before a November Sprint Cup race in Phoenix. Allmendinger will drive for Penske Racing in 2012. (GETTY IMAGES)

Dean McNulty, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:05 PM ET

The biggest deal of the NASCAR Sprint Cup off-season — so far — has to be the signing of A.J. Allmendinger to a one-year contract to drive the No. 22 Dodge at Penske Racing.

On the surface, ex-Penske driver Kurt Busch’s hooking up with Phoenix Racing in the No. 51 Chevrolet, and Clint Bowyer signing to drive the No. 00 Toyota at Michael Waltrip Racing, garnered more headlines. However, both of those moves were a step backwards for that pair of drivers.

There is no way the equipment at MWR will be a match for what Bowyer left behind at Richard Childress Racing and, as for Busch, he will be struggling for top-20 finishes in the James Finch Chevys.

Allmendinger, meanwhile, now will be driving race cars that have been regular visitors to Victory Lane in the Cup series for both Busch and his Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski.

While his most recent two seasons at Richard Petty Motorsports saw him in the iconic No. 43 Ford powered by Yates engines and in chassis built by Roush Fenway Racing, Allmendinger will have even better stuff when he starts in Daytona in February in Roger Penske’s Dodges.

With Allmendinger coming off his best effort — 15th place — the 2012 season surely will be the one where he gets his maiden win in NASCAR’s top series.

And just to keep him on his toes, there will be the long shadow of Sam Hornish Jr., who will be back full time next season at Penske, trying to both revive his stock car racing career and win a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship in the No. 12 Dodge.

As mentioned in this space previously, Montreal’s Alex Tagliani is also expected to make several runs — including a return engagement at the NAPA 200 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve — as a partner with Hornish on the road courses in Penske Dodges.

If Allmendinger, Hornish and Tagliani all prove their worth, it certainly would open the door wider for other IZOD IndyCar drivers — hello, James Hinchcliffe — to try to move over to stock cars.

FINISH LINES

Speaking of former IndyCar stars, Juan Pablo Montoya will celebrate his sixth season in NASCAR at Daytona, armed with a new contract from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and a determination to become the first Indianapolis 500 winner since A.J. Foyt (1972) to win the Daytona 500. Montoya already has a pair for Sprint Cup wins on his resume, but both of those have come on road courses at Infineon and Watkins Glen ... Tony Stewart Racing announced this week that the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion will return to Tulsa, Okla., to compete in the 2012 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, that begin Jan. 10. Stewart made his most recent appearance in the event in 2008, finishing eighth in the A-main finale. After taking a three-year hiatus from the biggest Midget race of the year, Stewart will return in January behind the wheel of the No. 14 Chevrolet/Chevrolet Performance Parts/Spike ... The biggest passer in Formula One in 2011 turned out to be Michael Schumacher. The seven-time champion recorded 116 passes in the Mercedes GP car. He edged out Sebastien Buemi at Toro Rosso. On the down side of the honour, however, is that in order to be in a position to pass in F1, one is usually in the back of the pack. ... Am I the only one who is wondering what’s next for 20-year-old Trevor Bayne? He was a surprise winner in the 2011 Daytona 500, but a bizarre illness that sidelined him for more than a month, cost him all the momentum he had coming out of Florida. He ended the season on a high with a Nationwide win at Texas, but his part-time Cup performances never came close to matching his Daytona win ... I keep hearing that Katherine Legge is set for another run at IndyCar racing. Apparently, the English driver — now 31 years old — has enough sponsorship money for a full season in North America, but has yet to pick a team to drive for in 2012. Legge has spent that past three seasons in the DTM series with Team Rosberg where she has a best finish of 18th in 2009.


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