Rolex 24 - Testing

AJ Allmendinger ready to make the most of second chance with new team

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Having been picked to replace Kurt Busch in the No. 22 Dodge after Busch’s ouster from Penske Racing at the end of the 2011 season, AJ Allmendinger came into 2012 sitting on top of the world.

He was with one of the better teams in the sport, driving for a motorsports legend in Roger Penske, and had Allmendinger stuck around for the whole season, would have shared in then-teammate Brad Keselowski’s run to the Sprint Cup championship later that same year.

Unfortunately, the man they call “The Dinger” saw that world collapse just about six months into his term with Team Penske, being suspended by NASCAR after testing positive for a banned stimulant following a random drug test.

In a matter of days that followed, Allmendingers Sprint Cup career, if not his future racing career – not to mention his tenure with Team Penske – had come to an abrupt end almost as quickly as it began.

To his credit, Allmendinger owned up to what he did and became a virtual poster boy for NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program. Allmendinger did everything that was asked of him and was quickly reinstated less than 3 ½ months after being suspended.

“I learned that there’s a lot of things I needed to change,” Allmendinger reflected back about his layoff with MotorSportsTalk during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour. “That racing itself didn’t just make me happy. Being away from racing, that wasn’t making me happy. There were just a lot of things that I needed to work on personally and mentally, kind of like almost starting all over again.

“Honestly, if it didn’t happen, I probably would never have had those opportunities, just because you’re so busy and you try to carry on and say it’ll fix itself. We all know it’s not going to fix itself. We can’t hide from problems, they won’t just go away. It gave me a chance to step back, look at myself and say I need to start over, to figure out the areas I need to work on and find true happiness.

“Racing makes me happy, but it wasn’t the sole reason. I wasn’t happy at the time. Being at home and the things I was dealing with (including divorce proceedings) weren’t making me happy. It’s that whole package. I feel so much better where I’m at now as a person.”

Last season, Allmendinger hoped to return to a full-time ride, but the opportunities were not there, so he did what he needed to do to keep himself visible. After finishing third in the Rolex 24 last January, he came back to race for Penske (proving he didn’t burn any bridges) in the Indianapolis 500 (started fifth, finished seventh).

Allmendinger would race in a total of six IndyCar races in 2013, as well as 18 Sprint Cup races for Phoenix Racing and JTG-Daugherty Racing, and also won both Nationwide Series races he entered (both also for Penske).

Allmendinger now finds himself in a similar position as Kurt Busch was in last season. Busch took an opportunity from Furniture Row Racing and ultimately became the first driver in Sprint Cup history to qualify a one-car team in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

That’s what Allmendinger would like to replicate in 2014.

“It is almost like starting over to be with this race team,” he said. “They don’t make me feel just like a driver, they make me feel a part of their family, I’m a key component to the race team and building it, not just driving the car. For all those reasons, I’m really looking forward to the partnership.”

The feeling is mutual, says team co-owner and ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty.

“We think it’s going to be a huge step for our program going forward,” Daugherty said of having Allmendinger. “We’re hoping to kind of simulate what the 78 (Busch and the Furniture Row team) did last year, to be very competitive every week.

“Expectations within our company are very high. We want to be inside that top-20 every week. … If you run well as a single-car team and get inside the top-20, you’re doing something.”

Putting Allmendinger behind the wheel is one of several changes for JTG-Daugherty, which is entering its 20th season in NASCAR racing this year. The perennial also-ran organization intends on shaking things up this year in a big way.

“We’re going to show up, be loud and proud, walk into some of those places like Dover and kick their butts, that’s what we’re planning on doing,” Daugherty said. “There’s no need to be shallow or meek about it. We got our butts kicked the last couple of years, so we’re going to hopefully return the favor this year.”

One of the biggest changes is JTG-D’s switch from Toyota to Chevrolet motors and chassis leased from Richard Childress Racing.

“We knew we had to have the alliance if we truly were going to be competitive,” Daugherty said. “Within our four walls, we don’t feel like we’re a 30th-place race team; we feel like we’re a 20th-place race team, but the reality of it is we were a 30th-place race team last year.

“We felt that Richard Childress gave us the best opportunity to maximize everything they were going to allow us to utilize. From Day One, they’ve given us entrée to everything they do in their building and it’s up to us to take advantage of it.”

Allmendinger plans on sticking around JTG-D, having recently signed a three-year contract.

“I thought this was the right place to be, the right choice for me and a place I can be hopefully for a long time,” Allmendinger said. “I’m very fortunate. … After 2012, I had to really sit down and look at that maybe, what you call big-time auto racing, I might be done with it. I love being here. I hope it continues for a long time.”

Allmendinger also realizes that everything he’s gone through has made him stronger.

“I truly believe now that things are meant to happen for a reason,” he said. “God had a plan and there’s so many things that happened last year that I’m so fortunate about. I’m in a great place, I feel so good mentally, physically – I’m just ready to go.”

Yet no matter how positive his attitude is, Allmendinger realizes and has accepted that he will likely carry for the rest of his career, if not his life, the stigma of having been suspended for drug use.

“I know that because of that stuff and where I’m at now and how much better I am,” Allmendinger said. “It sounds dumb, not that I’d ever want to have to go through that, but I’m happy I did and I wouldn’t actually go back and change it. That’s really the true thing. No, (talking about) it doesn’t bother me anymore.

“I’m happy to know I’ve learned from the past. But I don’t go back to the past, I just look toward the future. It’s a part of me and probably always will be.”

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Petrucci set for MotoGP return at Le Mans

PHILLIP ISLAND, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Danilo Petrucci of Italy and Octo Pramac Racing rounds the bend during the 2016 MotoGP Test Day at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit on February 18, 2016 in Phillip Island, Australia.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Danilo Petrucci will make his comeback from injury at this weekend’s MotoGP race in Le Mans after missing the first four races of the season.

Petrucci underwent surgery on his right hand due to a recurring problem that meant he could not race in Qatar, Argentina, Austin or Spain for the Pramac team.

The Italian’s place was taken by Michele Pirro for the last three races, but Petrucci is now fit again and will race at the Circuit de la Sarthe this weekend.

“I trained a lot in the last few weeks. This time I did things more calmly, waiting for my body to give me permission to train,” Petrucci said.

“I’m happy to be back and I feel good. Of course we must see the reaction to the first impact with the track as the intense workout made at home certainly cannot be compared to a race weekend. But I’m very confident.

“I want to thank all the people who helped me, my trainer Marco Baglioni, Tommaso, Filippo, and my brother Francesco who have trained with me, pushing me every day.

“I also want to thank the Medical Team of Terni who provided me with all the tools for physiotherapy and Dr. Tarallo, from the team of prof. Catani, who operated me.

“Then a big thank to all my fans for their support. I can’t wait to be at Le Mans and I hope I can soon give to all of them so much satisfaction.”

The French Grand Prix takes place on Sunday May 8.

Magnussen named Driver of the Day for Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Kevin Magnussen has won Formula 1’s official Driver of the Day poll for the Russian Grand Prix.

Magnussen started 17th in Sochi after a difficult qualifying session, but made the most of the trouble at the first corner for many of the cars ahead to work his way into the top 10.

The Dane’s pace was impressive during the second half of the race to ensure he finished the race seventh, marking Renault’s first points as an F1 constructor since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The result was also Magnussen’s first top 10 finish in F1 since the penultimate race of the 2014 season when he raced for McLaren.

On Monday, the official F1 Twitter account confirmed that Magnussen had won the vote through its website.

Kvyat, Gutierrez, Sainz handed penalty points after Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo collide at the start during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The Russian Grand Prix proved to be a busy race for the FIA stewards as a number of incidents resulted in three drivers receiving penalty points on their super licences.

Daniil Kvyat, Esteban Gutierrez and Carlos Sainz Jr. were all sanctioned by the stewards for actions during the race.

Kvyat’s antics on the first lap defined a number of drivers’ races as he hit Sebastian Vettel twice in a matter of seconds, the second hit punting the Ferrari racer into the wall and out of contention.

Kvyat said after the race that it was easy to attack him, but the rest of the paddock was less than impressed, leaving many expecting an apology from the Russian.

After being handed a 10-second stop/go penalty during the race, Kvyat was also given three points on his FIA super licence, taking his tally up to five for the 12-month period.

Gutierrez was also penalized for an incident on the first lap after he took out Nico Hulkenberg and sparked a multi-car melee at Turn 2. He too received a time penalty during the race, but was handed two penalty points afterwards by the stewards.

Finally, Sainz was found to have forced Jolyon Palmer off track between Turns 2 and 3 during the race. He had 10 seconds added to his race time and also received two penalty points.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium next to Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg saw his Formula 1 championship lead swell to 43 points on Sunday after winning the Russian Grand Prix, marking his seventh straight victory.

The German has not lost since the Mexican Grand Prix back in November, and will head to the start of the European season in Spain later this month full of confidence.

It proved to be a race full of intriguing storylines as Lewis Hamilton fought back from 10th on the grid to finish second, Romain Grosjean took Haas back into the points and everyone got angry with Daniil Kvyat for causing mayhem at Turn 2.

Following the race on Sunday, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you all of the latest news, interviews and insight in Paddock Pass.