Jeff Gordon’s been here before. And not too long ago, either.
Rewind to last year’s Chase decider at Richmond International Raceway, where Gordon had to race his way into the post-season. The four-time Sprint Cup champion looked as if he wouldn’t be able to do so, finding himself a lap down when the race was stopped for rain before the halfway mark.
But after his team disconnected the rear sway bar on his No. 24 Chevy, Gordon came alive. And at the end of the night, he had gone all the way to the runner-up spot, giving him the final Chase berth over Kyle Busch.
Tonight, Gordon finds himself in the same position. Winless so far this year, he is six points behind Kurt Busch for the final Top-10 bid in this year’s Chase. He can also clinch a Wild Card spot if he can come through with a victory.
Either way, your pole sitter for the Federated Auto Parts 400 needs another big night in Virginia. But compared to last year, Gordon maintains that he’s more loose this time around.
“I think we were in a tougher spot last year than we are this year,” he said Thursday. “I think the way it prepared us was knowing no matter what happens, you can’t ever give up.
“You just have to put every bit of effort into every single moment, every lap. If the car’s off, you got to work on it, sometimes take big swings at it. If your car’s perfect, don’t get complacent.”
Gordon was in trouble earlier in August after crashing at Watkins Glen, which caused him to tumble out of the Top 10 in the Cup standings. But he’s been able to climb back into the picture with results of seventh and sixth respectively in the last two events.
His Hendrick Motorsports team also recently tested at Richmond, and while Gordon said it wasn’t a great test, he felt the team “learned what not to do” and “made some big changes to improve the car as the test went on.”
Even more important in Gordon’s mind? The test went down in night conditions – similar to what he and the drivers will face in a few short hours from now.
“That was huge for us,” he said. “It’s not a typical thing that the track does here when you test. It was one of those things where we asked for it and they were able to, you know, pull that together and get us that valuable time on the track under more suitable race conditions.”
With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gordon on his game once again tonight at “The Action Track.”
“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 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.”