The ongoing battle for the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship visits the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway tonight for the sixth and final stand-alone event of the 2013 NNS calendar.
With the Sprint Cup regulars all in New Hampshire, the main focus will be on Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon, who are first and second in the NNS standings respectively, separated by 17 points.
Both have three NNS starts at Kentucky, but Dillon has the stronger record with two wins and a sixth place result earlier this year. However, Hornish hasn’t been a backmarker, either, with results of sixth, second and ninth in his three runs at the facility outside Cincinnati.
With the season winding down, a victory would be critical for either driver. But it might be even more important for the likes of Regan Smith (-36 points) and Elliott Sadler (-44 points), who need to start cutting into their deficits to Hornish and Dillon if they want to stand a chance at the NNS crown.
Sadler, in particular, took a major hit last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway when he was tagged from behind; the incident helped relegate him to a 19th-place finish, and more importantly, caused him to lose 16 points to Hornish.
That has forced Sadler and his team to take a more aggressive tack going forward.
“[Hornish and Dillon] are probably going to play off each other a lot I think in the next couple weeks…When one pits, I think you’ll see the other one pit and they’ll be racing kind of each other,” Sadler explained Friday at Kentucky.
“So what we have to do is we do the opposite. If they take four [tires], we need to take two. If they’re going to be conservative on gas, maybe we need to try to stretch it on gas, because we’re in a little bit different situation than they’re in.”
Meanwhile, Hornish will be seeking a more balanced strategy tonight in Kentucky.
“We still have a little room for improvement in terms of getting the car where we need it to be at the end of the race, so we can go after the win,” Hornish said in a Penske Racing statement.
“We have to be smart and yet still have the tempered aggression that it takes to win. The points battle is so close that we have to be mindful of whom we are racing. We’ve come a long way, but a lot can happen over the next seven races.”
“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.”