Rookies haven’t had a particularly easy time of breaking into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in recent years. However, series debutantes are in the spotlight for this weekend’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as three drivers will be making their Cup debuts.
Chip Ganassi’s top prodigy Kyle Larson and Richard Childress Racing development driver Brian Scott have been previously announced as entrants for Charlotte this Saturday night. Blake Koch is a late add to those two, in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford.
Kevin Harvick, who won in only his third ever Sprint Cup start (Atlanta, 2001, in a memorable photo finish over Jeff Gordon), said it’s harder for younger drivers to come in because the cars in the Nationwide Series and trucks in the Camping World Truck Series simply don’t measure up to Cup cars.
“There’s not as good of a training ground as there used to be,” Harvick said Thursday at Charlotte. “The Nationwide cars and Trucks are so slow. The Cup car and the driving style is so drastically different, so it makes the experience of Cup drivers more valuable. When I started, the cars were more similar. We raced on same tire pretty much every week and cars were faster. It would be good for our sport for the guys coming in – Larson I hope will be successful – and do what he needs to do. The chances aren’t there as much to take chances on the younger guys. The training ground not as good as it used to be.”
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson added the comparative lack of testing is also an issue.
“For me it’s more the limited testing,” he said. “I got 24 test days to sort stuff out. We didn’t race at Martinsville yet, or Pocono, so we could test there and get me up to speed.”
Johnson’s first full season was in 2002; this weekend marks 12 years since his Cup debut in the fall race at Charlotte in 2001. Johnson’s team could test at Martinsville and Pocono because the No. 48 team was not yet a full-time entrant. When teams reach that full-time status, they can only test at tracks that do not hold Sprint Cup races, as Martinsville and Pocono do.
“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.”