Last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch bemoaned his fifth-place finish there as his main rivals in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – Jimmie Johnson and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth – finished ahead of him.
After yesterday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, we figure Busch is at least a little happier. Because while he again finished fifth for the second straight week, he took the checkered flag ahead of both Johnson (who finished 13th) and Kenseth (who finished 20th).
Down 37 points to Kenseth at fifth in the Chase going into ‘Dega, Busch now finds himself tied for third with Kevin Harvick at a slightly less daunting margin of 26 points behind Johnson, who now holds the championship lead with four races to go.
Sunday began in frustrating fashion, however. While making his way to pit road for his first green-flag stop of the day at Lap 42, Busch was unable to get across and into his stall. As a result, he had to ride around and then come back a second time to get his four tires and fuel.
That dropped Busch all the way to the rear of the field, and he was eventually put a lap down. Fortunately for him, his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin was in the lead pack and Hamlin promptly tucked in behind Busch to get him in position for the “free pass” back to the lead lap.
A caution flag on Lap 78 ensured that Busch got the free pass, and the race was on from there. Busch would be a threat late, leading three times for nine laps, before he was shuffled back in the final laps.
Busch was part of the single-file pack on the high line during those last circuits, and he too seemed surprised that a train of cars on the low line never rose up to challenge them.
“It was interesting that everybody stuck up on the outside that long and certainly that was the fastest way around,” Busch said. “There wasn’t anyone making up any time on the bottom.
“I figured that a lot of people would try to and be able to make up some time, but a couple tried and never made anything happen. We ended up with a decent finish here today, so that’s all we could ask for.”
“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.”