NASCAR’s underdogs have their day

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Apart from the “Super” or “Mega” teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage, the smaller teams usually relegated to the back of the field often get a chance to shine at Daytona. This year was no different.

Regan Smith (No. 51 Phoenix Racing), Michael McDowell (No. 98 Phil Parsons Racing, see right) and J.J. Yeley (No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing) all scored top-10 finishes in this year’s Daytona 500. Smith ended seventh from 40th on the grid, with McDowell and Yeley ninth and 10th from 38th and 41st, respectively.

James Finch’s Phoenix squad has a prior win at Talladega, the first of Brad Keselowski’s career in 2009, but has otherwise struggled with Finch funding the effort largely out-of-pocket. The team threw Kurt Busch a lifeline after he was released from Penske Racing at the end of 2011.

The Parsons and Baldwin teams had not previously secured a top-10 finish in the “Great American Race.” Baldwin’s No. 36 was in a position to win last year’s Daytona 500 with Dave Blaney, who was leading at the time of a red flag when Juan Pablo Montoya collided with a jet drier. McDowell’s ninth place is his first Sprint Cup top-10 in six seasons.

Of the other relatively smaller teams, BK Racing’s pair of cars got both of its cars (David Reutimann, 16th and Travis Kvapil, 25th) in the top-25 although Kvapil had an accident on the last lap of the race. Scott Speed finished a respectable 23rd in the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Ford. All three of Front Row Motorsports’ Fords (David Ragan, Josh Wise, David Gilliland) were caught up in a lap 139 accident.

It’s difficult for these teams to get noticed with a lack of “big name” drivers or sponsors. But in the restrictor-plate racing crapshoots at Daytona and Talladega, they can score good finishes simply by staying out of trouble.

Schmidt Peterson hires IndyCar’s first female lead engineer, will work with Hinchcliffe

Photo courtesy Audi Sport
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Leena Gade, who helped lead Audi to three wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has joined Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as lead engineer for the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda of driver James Hinchcliffe.

“I’m really honored that I’ve got a chance to come across and work in INDYCAR,” Gade said in a team media release. “When I was a kid, I used to watch Indy car (racing), especially when Nigel Mansell first came over (in 1993), and I followed it quite a lot.

“During my sports car days, it was a little less so, until I had friends come across to the U.S. to work in it like Piers (Phillips, SPM’s general manager).

“I’m quite honored to be given the chance. It is going to be something completely different to anything I’ve ever done before, so it’s a big learning curve, but it’s a challenge that I’m really relishing, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Gade, who grew up in India and is from Great Britain, is one of the most recognized engineers in all forms of international motorsports. She becomes the first female lead engineer in Verizon IndyCar Series history.

She’s also the second female lead engineer in Indy racing history, joining Diane Holl, who served as engineer for Adrian Fernandez, Tony Kanaan (Tasman Motorsports) and Richie Hearn (Della Penna Motorsports) in CART from 1996-2000.

Gade, who holds engineering degrees from the University of Manchester in England, has engineered cars in several race series and for several manufacturers, including F1, BMW, A1 Grand Prix, GT racing, Jaguar, Audi and most recently with Bentley Motorsport.

She became the first female race engineer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011, and followed that up with another Le Mans win in 2012, as well as being part of the World Endurance Championship drivers and manufacturers titles in the same year.

Also in 2012, she was named FIA WEC “Man of the Year” and was awarded the C&R Racing Women in Technology award from the Lyn St. James Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation.

Her team also won Le Mans for a third time in 2014.

“There was significant interest in Leena amongst the international motorsports community, so we’re really excited that she sees where we’re taking SPM, believes in what we’re doing and that she is now a part of our organization,” Piers Phillips said. “ I’ve known Leena for quite some time now and I’ve worked alongside her, so I knew the credit she’s been given is well deserved. We’re very much looking forward to throwing her into the deep end and seeing her add to the team’s success.”

Gade and Hinchcliffe go into the deep end that Phillips referenced when they take part in a team test Jan. 24 at Sebring International Raceway, the first time the pair will work together.