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

F1 Paddock Pass: German Grand Prix (VIDEO)

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari laughs in the Drivers Press Conference during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return to Hockenheim this weekend for the German Grand Prix after a two-year absence.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Germany leading the drivers’ championship for the first time in 2016 following his victory in Hungary last weekend.

Five wins in the last six races have seen Hamilton wipe away Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg’s 43-point lead in the title race, turning it into a six-point advantage ahead of F1’s summer break.

With the driver market beginning to fall into place for next year and the F1 Strategy Group having met earlier today, this weekend’s race is due to feature a number of key storylines.

Previewing the weekend with all the latest interviews, news and analysis, Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

John Force gets ‘gorilla’ off back, ready to become King Kong again

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(Photo: Gary Nastase Photography)
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John Force admits he’s probably been watching politics a little bit too much of late, particularly some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

After he won this past Sunday at Denver, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion couldn’t contain himself.

“I was like a little kid, I got kinda stupid,” he said. “I’m yelling it out, ‘We’re live on Fox. We’re going to make NHRA drag racing great again.’”

Force paused, and then sheepishly added, “It just kinda came out of me.”

But Force had good reason to be caught up in the moment: he had just won his first NHRA national event in over a year.

For a guy who has now won a record 144 races, going more than a year without a win was tantamount to coming out of a dark forest after being lost for nearly 13 months.

“I did a recent interview and the guy said, ‘Boy, you’re back.’ But I never really left. Mentally, I never left.

“But the problem is when you get in that battle and you’re getting whipped every week, whether it’s the Schumacher’s or Pedregon, Wilkerson or Kalitta that are beating you up, there ain’t a whole lot to say.

“You take your whipping and just keep fighting it. Now I have something to say.”

Indeed, Force has something to say – but then, he always does. The most popular and outspoken driver in NHRA history wants to make sure that the fans, and especially his fellow competitors:

“I didn’t just get a monkey off my back, I got a gorilla off it,” he quipped.

And now it’s Force who is ready to get back to his old King Kong form.

“Without a doubt, I’m going after a championship,” Force said. “That’s how (teammates) Robert Hight and my daughters think. That’s what we do.”

NHRA Drag Racing
John Force, left, after defeating daughter Courtney in the final round of this past Sunday’s race in Denver.

To say Force was excited after winning is an understatement:

“I was jacked. I started yelling, and I never do that if it’s my daughter or Robert Hight, if I’m lucky enough to beat ‘em. I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to rub it in, but man, my heart was pounding.

“I jumped out of the car at the end of (his winning) run and I wanted to be like Ron Capps. He always jumps up on his hood when he wins a race and he doesn’t hurt it.

“I wanted to jump up on that hood, I got out of the car, and I about fell off the side of the car. They had to catch me. … It was so funny. One of my guys said, ‘Old man, get off there, you’re going to kill yourself, get off that roof.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to stand up there like Capps, I want to do this for live TV.’ I’ll tell you, I got a little crazy there.”

Winning at Denver brought back memories of the 1992 season, when Force was going for a third consecutive Funny Car championship.

“I remember we won championships in 1990 and 1991 and then here comes Cruz (Pedregon) with the hamburger stand from hell. He was sponsored by McDonald’s, and he beat us in ’92. I was having fits.

“We were going up to the race in Seattle, were in a McDonald’s drive-thru and my daughter Ashley said, ‘Dad, I want one of those McDonald’s cars.’ I wanted to break it. My wife said, ‘Are you losing your mind?’ I told her, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ This kid came out of nowhere.

“(Former crew chief Austin) Coil said, ‘Force, relax, he’d have to win the last five and we’d have to lose in the first round each time.’ And that’s what happened. Cruz just won everything. He found magic and we found stupidity.

“Then, the next year, we went out and won 10.”

That’s where Force is at now. One win down, nine to go – or at least he hopes in the remaining 10 races on the NHRA schedule.

While he may not win nine races, what he showed at Denver means Force and his team are capable of winning many more races in what had been a challenging season up until last weekend.

When he came off the mountain at Denver, Force had improved from ninth to eighth in the Funny Car point standings. But he still has more mountains to climb ahead of him, as he’s 299 points behind points leader Ron Capps.

But on the flip side, Force is only 60 points out of fourth place, currently occupied by two-time champ Matt Hagan.

That’s why Force is looking forward to this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

“The hill was big for us but when we got on that mountain (last week’s race at Denver), for some reason we had it all right,” Force said. “But trust me, when we get to Sonoma this weekend, they’ll (his Funny Car rivals will) be back. They didn’t like getting beat. They’ll all be back but we’re still learning, we’re still turning that corner.”

Force and Top Fuel counterpart, eight-time champ Tony Schumacher, both earned their first wins in over a year at Denver. So as the so-called Western Swing (Denver, Sonoma and Seattle) continues this weekend, Force and Schumacher both want to continue their newfound winning ways.

“The Western Swing is pretty special,” Force said. “Schumacher told me after Denver that we’re going to try to win the Swing, him and me. But he said, one thing if we don’t, nobody else can. So, we’ve fought everybody by this first win.”

Even though he’s now 67 in age, Force said he feels much younger in performance. He claims he never thought that his win at Epping, New Hampshire a year ago in June potentially could have been the last of his career.

“Nope, never did,” Force said. “First of all, I took a big financial hit.”

That he did. Force lost his two primary sponsors after the 2014 season when Castrol Oil (which had been with him for more than 30 years) and Ford (20 years) both decided to reallocate resources in other directions.

“You’ve got to be financial to stay alive,” Force said. “I put all that back together. That was my focus. Then I started building teams again.

“I told Jim Campbell (U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports) at Chevrolet that this wasn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take me time to put together. It fell apart. Financially, it killed me. I had big overhead and couldn’t pay it. I lost people, we weren’t able financially to test as much.

“Now we’re back in the game and we’re starting to turn the corner. I’ve got a team that’s young, with so much heart and hungry.”

Force had a number of drivers to get past en route to his win at Denver, none more important – or close – to him than his opponent in Sunday’s final round: his daughter Courtney.

The win over his youngest daughter was both bittersweet and humorous, and only Force can tell those stores in his own inimitable fashion.

First, the bittersweet aspect:

“You know what’s funny, I didn’t even know I’d won. She (Courtney) was right out my window all the way to the (finish) lights. I kept saying to myself, ‘Come on, baby, keep it in the groove, keep it in the groove, don’t be looking over at her.’ I promised I wouldn’t look over at her, I didn’t want to know she was there, because I get emotional (when he races) my kids and then you don’t fight the fight to win.

“You got to go in there like you want to tear their throat out, but how do you do that to your baby girl? I did look over and thought, man, she’s right out the window, and I knew she was faster than me.

“She did her job, she was right there. But when we cleared the lights, I didn’t see her anymore because she likes to drive by me (in the shutdown area).

“I told them, don’t talk about my daughter to me in the final. Everybody mentioned she was next to me, but I wanted to forget about her. I didn’t even want to look over to see her team. I needed to go do my lane, be a tiger and go after it.

“I didn’t want to know it was her, I gave it everything I got and the good Lord got us there. But I’ll take it because I needed it.”

And now, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story on his win over Courtney – with the kind of humorous twist that only John Force can put on it:

“After the race, our teams went out to dinner. Courtney went to a pizza place with her team; she wouldn’t go to dinner with me. I said to her, ‘Are you still mad at me, honey?’ She said, ‘Dad, you just aggravate me.’

“I told her, ‘I needed it, I needed to get you.’ She said, ‘I know, you needed to win for Peak and Chevy to prove you were okay.’

“I told her, ‘They’re all looking at you. They love you, you’re beautiful, like your mom. You ain’t homely looking like me. I needed a win. Now, I need more. And she knows.’”

And so does every other Funny Car driver out there.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Rosberg surprised by Hamilton’s sudden interest in F1 safety

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP walks in the Paddock during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg is surprised by Lewis Hamilton’s sudden interest in Formula 1 safety as their dispute over the yellow flags shown in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix continues.

Hamilton was forced to abandon his final Q3 lap in Hungary after a spin for Fernando Alonso sparked double waved yellow flags at Turn 8.

Mercedes teammate Rosberg was one of the last drivers to come across the double waved yellow flags, lifting briefly through the incident site before taking pole by one-tenth of a second.

The stewards investigated the incident late in the day, reportedly at Hamilton’s behest, but felt that Rosberg slowed sufficiently despite setting a session-best middle sector.

Hamilton said on Thursday that the lack of penalty given to Rosberg has now set a precedent for all other drivers to follow, before airing concerns about the safety of the ruling.

“He’s not someone who’s regarded for being interested in safety up to now, so quite a change there which I just noted,” Rosberg told NBCSN on Thursday in Germany.

When asked if that was a widely-held opinion, Rosberg said: “I have no idea,” before telling NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton: “I’m sure you would share the opinion with me.

“There’s nothing to be biased about, it’s just a reflection. You can have the same one.”

Rosberg remained adamant that the rules regarding yellow flags in F1 are clear, reasoning his actions during Q3 in Hungary.

“It has been very clear, which is why I followed instructions totally and there was no issue,” Rosberg said.

“There’s no grey area – as long as you significantly slow down where there’s the incident where there’s the double yellow.

“Setting a purple lap on a drying track has nothing to do with the incident because the sector is huge.

“What’s important is you slow down in that one corner to keep things safe and that’s not changed. That’s the same as always.”

Hamilton: Hungary stewards’ Rosberg ruling sets precedent for all

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks to the media during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes the FIA stewards’ ruling on Nico Rosberg’s pole position lap partly set under yellow flags in Hungary sets a precedent for all other Formula 1 drivers.

Hamilton was forced to abandon his final Q3 lap in Hungary after a spin for Fernando Alonso sparked double waved yellow flags at Turn 8.

Rosberg was one of the last drivers to come across the double waved yellow flags, lifting briefly through the incident site before taking pole by one-tenth of a second.

The stewards investigated the incident late in the day, reportedly at Hamilton’s behest, but felt that Rosberg slowed sufficiently despite setting a session-best middle sector.

Speaking on Thursday about the incident, Hamilton once again questioned the way in which the regulations regarding yellow flags are interpreted.

“The rule has been written and I’m pretty certain even before my time, but since I started racing when I was eight, the rules have been written exactly the same since then and meant the same since then,” Hamilton told NBCSN.

“They just seem to be interpreted differently from year to year. I think that’s really what’s in question.”

Hamilton believes that the lack of action taken over Rosberg’s pole lap has set a precedent to all other drivers about what is acceptable under double waved yellow flags.

“Right now, it’s clear from the last result that’s I think how all us drivers can approach it the same way as the precedent was set in the last race unless it’s rectified this weekend,” Hamilton said.

“That’s the precedent that’s been set. We’ve not been told any other way so all you have to do is do that little lift which is not good in the big scheme of things. It’s not good.”

Hamilton believes that the leniency could backfire in the future, but hopes it will not take an incident to prompt the stewards to get tougher on yellow flags.

“That’s why I made so much noise about it at the last race,” Hamilton said.

“One day there’s going to be someone on the track. Then they’re going to be like ‘you have to slow down half a second and not go faster in the sector’.

“But hopefully they’ll make that decision before then.”