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

Karam: “A tricky qualifying run for the Gas Monkey Energy car”

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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, a past champion in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series who finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 with DRR in 2014 at age 19, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his third entry, after qualifying and a crazy Monday practice session. You can read his first and second blogs here.  He’ll run the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. 

Hi there, Sage Karam checking in again from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It’s Monday, and we put our No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet back into race trim after two days of qualifying for the 100th Indy 500. It was wild out there today! You saw some crazy action out there after qualifying.

But as I mentioned in the lead up to qualifying, the past week’s practice sessions saw a multitude of weather changes from cool to hot, from windy to not. All the time, my Dreyer & Reinbold–Kingdom Racing team did a super job making all of the adjustments for race conditions.

We then put the race car into qualifying trim; you take off the downforce you needed versus when you were running around other cars on track. In qualifying, it’s a four-lap sprint by yourself, and you attempt to get the maximum speed possible.

On Saturday, the first day of qualifications, I think the track really changed from the rest of the week, and I think it threw a lot of guys off, me especially. The car balance did a complete 180 on us. We were loose Friday, as the rear end of the car wants to come around on you.

But, on Saturday, we had a lot of understeer, so it kind of caught us off guard in the morning. We went back to the garage before qualifying and did some changes as we were not really sure what we had, and it was just kind of a gamble.

I mean I was flat (on the throttle), and I told myself I was going to go flat. I put my left foot over my right foot and that was it. I worked with my tools in the car (weight jacker, etc.) and I went flat three laps. On the fourth lap, the car started understeering again and I had to crack the throttle about five to ten percent going into turn one. So, there’s more left in the car. We’re low on downforce then, just because we didn’t know what we were going to have.

I knew the car had a lot more speed left in it, and I knew I have a great team with DRR-Kingdom Racing and Gas Monkey Energy on board. So we went back to the garage and we look at the computer charts and numbers. I thought there was at least another mile an hour left in the car, just in downforce. We were looking to come in to Sunday be in the 229-mile average range. I thought we could be at 228 or 229 for Sunday’s final qualifying runs.

On Sunday, I was not pleased with our qualifying attempt. We just had too much downforce in the car. The track temperature kept climbing throughout the afternoon. So the team wanted to keep a little more downforce in the car to handle the hotter track.

But some clouds came over the Speedway right before our qualifying attempt. The cloud cover definitely cooled off the track surface and we just didn’t need that much downforce. The car was good Saturday that I thought we had a shot at tenth, which is the best you can get if you miss the top nine on the first day.

The track was changing every time you go out there. We thought we needed more downforce with the hotter track temperatures, and the temps went down 10 degrees with the clouds. I wish we could have taken the wedges out of the car and put in some of the speed ramps for straightaway speed. The weather was constantly changing and it just caught us out.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

All this week, the Gas Monkey Energy crew have been outstanding on race setups, and I feel confident going into next Sunday. Fortunately, it’s not all about qualifying. It’s about next Sunday. It would have made my job easier for the race if we could have qualified a bit better than 23rd.

But it’s been nine months for me since my last race. It’s an incredible feeling to be back here at Indy. Anytime you are turning laps here, it’s still a magical feeling. I can’t wait to get back into Turn 1 with 32 other cars, and make 200 laps again.

This Friday will be our final one-hour practice before Sunday’s 100th Indy 500. It’s Carb Day, and it’s a fun event for the fans too. In addition, we will be in the Pit Stop Challenge on Friday afternoon. The last time I was with the DRR-Kingdom team, we finished second overall to Scott Dixon. Our crew is a fast one with the four-tire change and fuel. I feel we have a chance to win the Challenge this Friday.

Thanks for reading and we’ll have another blog before race day. Lots of media interviews and promotions are ahead the next few days, including having the Gas Monkey (on my shirt) meet up with animals at the Cincinnati Zoo on Tuesday.



Pippa Mann on Monday’s practice: “Like Carb Day on steroids”

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INDIANAPOLIS – A strong day at the office for Pippa Mann in her No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda saw her end fifth on the speed charts, top Honda on the day, with 116 laps completed (second on the field only behind Simon Pagenaud and Max Chilton, who both ran 117 laps) and feeling much more confident about her Dale Coyne Racing car in race trim ahead of Sunday’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

While she acknowledged her best lap came courtesy of a tow – most of the quick ones did – it was still a relief to know her repaired chassis was back and good to go after the team found some additional niggling issues before her qualifying attempt on Sunday.

“It was not fun not being able to warm up, and go straight to your qualifying run,” she admitted during today’s post-practice press conference. “But I’m so grateful to the Dale Coyne Racing crew for giving me such a great car.

“I was very happy to be back in race trim today. We still have some work to do. Most of the people here caught a big tow – I’m no exception – but I hope we have a top-20, top-15 race car. People were better than me today, but there were people I was better than too.”

Mann was no exception to the frantic craziness that made up the session, in significant group running during the day that saw a grand total of 2,886 laps turned.

“It was Carb Day Mark 2.0… or potentially Carb Day on steroids,” she said. “We did that for four hours. It got a bit hairy a few times. No one wants to tear up a race car this close to race day for sure.

“But the good thing is that’s representative of what it will be like in the race. In the race when we have that many cars in a groove, you’re not gonna be able to run fast times,” she explained. “You use all the gears, occasionally the brakes – and yes it sounds weird at this place. You’re reacting after everyone.”

On Saturday, Mann and the No. 63 team faced adversity when a rear wing end fence failed, which pitched her into a spin for her initial qualifying attempt off Turn 2.

That being said, Mann did a rather good job to keep the car largely intact on corner exit, save for slight front wing and left front tire and upright damage – it could have been much, much worse.

The Saturday blip interrupted an otherwise productive week of practice not just for her, but the entire Coyne team. Mann – who’s better at setup and feedback than most probably realize – was keen to note the improvements she’s felt coming into her fifth Indianapolis 500, both from a team and from a Honda standpoint.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

“The really big thing is after Indy last year I worked with Rob Ridgely, who was the engineer on (No.) 18 last year,” she said. “When I was talking to Dale about coming back and him going to four cars, he said, ‘We’ll bring “Ridge” back,’ and that made me smile.

“We got on really well, and it creates that continuity. All the races I’ve done after I’ve been missing, it’s often new people to learn and to work with. To have that continuity is fantastic, and I think it’s really shown.

“What’s really interesting for me is that my last reference point is coming off Pocono,” she added about Honda’s development.

“Honda has worked really hard this winter. To drive it again after last year, both of the actual platform – even though they haven’t changed it much – the (operating) window is better and bigger. In engine department, they’ve worked hard. We’re pleased with they’ve shown up with so far.”

Mann said her car appears to work better in cooler conditions than hotter ones – today saw ambient and track temperatures peak at 82 ambient and 122 track, per Firestone, at 3:30 p.m.

If it’s cooler, that may help her on Sunday, as she’ll start 25th.

“I can’t speak for Josef (Newgarden) but our car with a little bit of cloud cover, we’ve been very, very good,” said the driver who’s also doing the #GetInvolved campaign fundraiser.

“Better than today actually. We were OK. When the track temp came down we were looking quite good, and I’d move our target then from top-15 to 20, to maybe top-15 to low top-10 car? It makes quite a big difference.”

Newgarden leads frenetic, crazy Monday practice at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sunday is race day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, but today may as well have been a warm-up act following one of the craziest days of practice in recent memory.

Josef Newgarden led the day’s running in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet at 227.414, ahead of three other Chevrolets – Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Sage Karam.

“I think today is the most representative day that we’re going to get going into Sunday, which was great,” Newgarden said in the post-practice press conferences. “Everyone was in a pack together, which was great, because that’s what we need to see. Everyone needed to see what’s going to happen in a pack.

“To me, some guys looked good at certain points, and then they looked really bad at other points. I think that’s how it’s going to be on race day. You’re going to be good at one point. You’re going to be bad at the other. It’s about making your race more good than bad. You need to minimize the bad stints and maximize the good stints. I think that’s going to be the game.”

In fifth place, Pippa Mann turned her first practice laps since her qualifying attempt in the No. 63 Susan G. Komen Honda and was the top Honda at 225.833 mph.

Jack Hawksworth had a fire out the back of his No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda, and it was the third mechanical issue of the month for Honda.

In another Foyt car, Alex Tagliani made it out in a “Franken car,” either Hawksworth or Takuma Sato’s backup car, following his accident in qualifying.

Forgetting the times, in the 2,886 laps completed, it was just an insane amount of action with trains, passing, repassing and near-misses.

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Hinchcliffe’s recovery and pole is an incredible kickoff to Indy 500 (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Today marks the final full day of practice for this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. This practice day last year (then May 18), James Hinchcliffe suffered a near-death accident when going through Turn 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

You know the story by now. The suspension piece pierced his upper thigh, he lost a lot of blood, and he was saved by both the Holmatro Safety Team and later, the Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital team.

It was a miracle Hinchcliffe even recovered but the fact he didn’t just recover – quicker than he anticipated – but is almost stronger after the fact is pretty dang cool.

He was back in a car in September for a test at Road America to kick off his testing process through the offseason. In the opening five races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, Hinchcliffe has now banked three straight top-10 finishes, including his first podium since his return with third place in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Now, the drama has ratcheted up another level with Hinchcliffe first ending fastest in the first day of qualifying on Saturday, and then scoring the pole position on Sunday as the final driver in the Fast Nine Shootout to run.

“I get it (about the accident). It was a big deal. It was a big deal to me, too,” Hinchcliffe said in the post-qualifying press conference.

“And I understand that. And I really appreciated that people wanted to hear the story, wanted to tell the story for me. There was a lot of really, really nice pieces done, a lot of nice tributes done in that sense. But no, then you’re coming back to this place and you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 Gs.

“So there was definitely a point where it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, is there anything else you want to talk about? Let’s lead with that and kind of see where we go from there.’ But we’ll see.

“Hopefully this is the topic of conversation for the next week and a week from now we’ve got an even better story to tell.”

One of those aforementioned “really nice pieces” referenced is that earlier this year, NBCSN shot this piece of Hinchcliffe’s accident and his recovery before he got back in his first race of the season at St. Petersburg.

Produced by Taylor Rollins, it premiered during our first show of the year, the pre-show for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

You can see it above, as preparations intensify for the biggest race of the IndyCar season.