A California IndyCar cameo for Kurt Busch is just a dream for 2013

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The possibility of Kurt Busch, 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, making his IZOD IndyCar Series racing debut at the 2013 season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Oct. 19, was erased Thursday during NASCAR’s Chase media advance at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Busch’s focus, naturally, will be on pulling a relative upset in the Chase with the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation. Rumors of him entering an IndyCar race this year gained steam after he completed his Rookie Orientation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s usual No. 1 DHL Chevrolet for Andretti Autosport.

“It’s a situation where we needed to have things closer,” Busch said. “The dates got too far down the road where we needed to notify Chevrolet that we needed an extra engine to get to Fontana. It was very important in the month of May, but it’s not important now in the middle of September.”

Busch wanted to do it as much for preparation and to have a race under his belt prior to a potential rookie appearance in the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

“It’s not eliminating Indianapolis next year,” he said. “I was just hoping to have more of my homework done, gain more experience and get an education.”

He’s hopeful that another test session can materialize sometime if not at Indianapolis, perhaps at Pocono, where he wants to be able to properly “put the (IndyCar) on edge” and extract maximum speed. His initial test in May was to get comfortable with the car and go through the phases of Indy’s Rookie Orientation Program.

Regarding sponsorship, Busch preferred finding one major sponsor to support his efforts over a consortium.

“There’s a certain value that’s tough for people to commit to,” he explained. “It’s why you see so many cars sponsored by five or six different brands. We’re trying to get that one big fish. We’ll go back to the drawing board.”

Busch’s new contract with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014 does not prevent him from competing in IndyCar. Considering his versatility, having tested an IndyCar, an Australian V8 Supercar and raced an NHRA Pro Stock car besides his NASCAR commitments, he’d be an invaluable addition to the grid at Indianapolis in the future.

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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