Allmendinger captures elusive Nationwide win at Road America

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Despite several green-white-checkered attempts to throw him off his game, AJ Allmendinger would not be denied an elusive first victory in NASCAR. Allmendinger repaid the faith of team boss Roger Penske with a win from pole in the No. 22 Discount Tire Ford Mustang in the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ Johnsonville Sausage 200 at Elkhart Lake’s Road America.

Allmendinger held off Turner Scott Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier and Kyle Busch Motorsports rookie Parker Kligerman on the race that took two extra GWCs to finish. It ran 55 laps instead of the scheduled 50; Allmendinger led 29 laps of the 4.048-mile circuit.

Owen Kelly and Sam Hornish Jr. each had fraught days and fell back outside the top-25, yet when all was said and done ended fourth and fifth. Unofficially, Hornish clawed back 28 points of his deficit of 58 to series leader Regan Smith, who finished 33rd.

A typical Road America NASCAR edition, then, if ever there was one – methodical and fast-paced the first 35 or so laps, before all hell broke loose in the last 15-plus.

There were only three cautions in the first 33 laps and in the last 22, there were five more via a collection of spins, off-course excursions and occasional fisticuffs.

Several drivers didn’t have results to maximize their runs. Among them, Billy Johnson of Roush Fenway Racing had a storming drive from the mid-30s after a pit road speeding penalty all the way back to the lead, before two incidents sent him to the back.

Johnson fell from the lead with 10 laps to go prior to the scheduled checkered flag outside the top-20 after an accordion effect incident at Turn 5, where he slipped into the gravel and had to drive out. Earlier in the race, Johnson made contact with Max Papis, and after the race the Italian reacted by slapping Johnson with his helmet still on.

Nationwide Series debutante and defending Pirelli World Challenge GT class champion Johnny O’Connell brought the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet home in 12th.

The Nationwide Series is back on a Sprint Cup weekend next weekend in Kentucky.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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