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

Exclusive: Austin Coil returns to ‘help’ John Force in 2016

Austin Coil is coming back to 'help out' at John Force Racing in 2016.
(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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The man most responsible for John Force’s career success – other than Force himself – is coming back to John Force Racing.

Force exclusively confirmed to NBCSports.com that former crew chief Austin Coil is coming out of retirement and returning to the JFR fold for 2016.

“Coil said to me, ‘You’ve managed to screw this up, but I can help you’,” Force said with a laugh during a phone interview from NHRA preseason testing in Phoenix. “He’s helping me, to help the people with me, to look at the things we need to get this thing right.”

First joining forces in 1986, Force and Coil went on to become the winningest driver-crew chief combination in NHRA history, earning 15 Funny Car championships and 132 national event wins together.

Coil abruptly retired one day after leading Force to his 15th NHRA Funny Car championship in 2010.

Since the breakup, Force has won just one additional Funny Car championship (2013) and 11 national event victories. The veteran driver is coming off an especially tough 2015 season, one he calls “my worst season in 25 years,” finishing seventh in the standings and recording just two wins (Las Vegas 1 and Epping, New Hampshire).

And even though Force is now 66 and Coil is 70, they believe they can regain some of their old magic together. Force has also brought back former tech whiz Ron Armstrong into the JFR fold.

“We’re putting the old band back together,” Force said with a laugh.

As for what Coil’s role will be exactly, Force was quick to point out Coil will not return to his old crew chief role, nor will he be considered a “consultant” or “advisor.”

Rather, Coil simply wants to be “help out,” Force said.

“Coil, I want to be clear, is not going to come out here on the road, he doesn’t want to do that,” Force said. “But he’s helping us with stuff.”

Coil will not have an office at JFR and will work at his own pace, Force said. But given that Coil called the shots for 24 years before, Force is more than happy to let his old buddy “help out” in any way he sees fit.

“I’m really excited to have him on board,” Force said. “Just talking to Coil, for me, we’ve only had three or four lunches together, but just talking helps get my heart back right. He made me who I am and I’m never going to forget that.

“I asked Coil what did I do wrong? He said, ‘You’ve been on overload. You had good people and you lost some. What you have to do is get back on track.

“He told me to split the team in half, start building the dragster side (with 11-time Top Fuel champion Alan Johnson overseeing the team with Force’s daughter, Brittany, behind the wheel), and on the other side, build the Funny Car side, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Coil had resisted prior efforts to return to the JFR fold. But when Force came calling over the winter, Coil apparently had a change of heart.

“Over the winter, Robert (JFR president and Force’s son-in-law Robert Hight) and I got together (with Coil) and said, ‘Let’s talk about things,’” Force said. “We knew there were issues. He quit, he walked away, he said he just didn’t want to do this anymore. I thought he might be going to Schumacher (arch-rival Don Schumacher Racing), but that’s not where he went.

“He said, ‘I’ve done my thing, I’ve won’ and we really were best of friends. He said to my face, ‘I love you, Force, I always have. But I’m in a different mode in my life of what I want to do. I’m in retirement, I can’t run to the airports like I used to.’

“He’s the one that put me here 25 years ago. Thirty years ago, we started building it. People give me the credit for it, but no, it’s the people I put around me like Coil, Armstrong, Mike Neff (crew chief for Hight and director of operations for JFR) and with AJ (Alan Johnson) coming in here and Brian Husen (as Brittany Force’s crew chief).”

With Johnson now running the Top Fuel side of JFR, and with Coil’s return, Force is very optimistic about his four-car organization’s chances in 2016.

“I always listen to Austin Coil,” Force said. “He says let Alan Johnson run that dragster, he’ll put your kid in the winner’s circle, and let Mike Neff run that Funny Car. He’s won championships for you and he’s going to build those Funny Car teams to where they need to be.

“So, I’m excited about it. We’re going to be okay. We’re going racing now.”

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Bird: Buenos Aires Formula E win ranks among career best

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - FEBRUARY 06:  Sam Bird of DS Virgin Racing Formula E Team celebrates at the podium after winning the Buenos Aires ePrix as part of 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship at Puerto Madero Street Race Track on February 06, 2016 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images for TAG Heuer)
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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird believes that his victory in Saturday’s Buenos Aires ePrix ranks among the very best in his racing career after he fended off championship leader Sebastien Buemi in the final stages of the race.

Bird led the majority of the race from pole position, but came under intense pressure late on from Buemi who was bidding to complete a last-to-first comeback.

A mistake in qualifying had resigned the Swiss driver to the back of the grid, yet he was crawling all over the back of Bird’s DS Virgin Racing car with a few laps to go.

However, Bird managed to produce a superb defensive display to keep Buemi back and secure his third win in Formula E, which he believes ranks among the best in his career.

“I think it’s up there, I think it’s really good,” Bird told MotorSportsTalk. “I enjoy all the victories. I look back on all of them with fondness but considering we were fighting with two cars that are really good at the moment, to come out and beat them hands down feels very nice.

“We’ve learned a lot from Punta del Este, like I’ve told everbody and we put that into good practice and we did the best we could. We maximized everything and we’ve come away with 28 points so really happy.”

Despite sitting third in the championship standings, Bird does not believe that he is in a position to mount a challenge for the title this year.

“Hare and the tortoise and all that, that’s what I’ve said, hare and the tortoise,” Bird said. “It’s way too early. There are two guys out there that are just so fast. If I can take it to the end, great. I’m not even thinking about it to be honest.

“There are so many decent drivers in this championship that one minute you might win, the next minute you might be P10. So we need to wait and see. Consistency is the key. The two guys ahead of me, they’re relentless, so beating them will be tough.”

Sam Bird takes memorable Formula E victory in Buenos Aires

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BUENOS AIRES – Sam Bird emerged victorious from one of the most thrilling Formula E races in the short history of the series after fending off a charging Sebastien Buemi in the closing stages to bag his third win.

Championship leader Buemi started the race from the back of the grid after making a mistake in qualifying, leaving him with a mountain to climb to even score points, let alone win the race.

However, the Swiss driver produced a driving masterclass and was aided by a safety car period to come into contention late on, only for Bird to produce an equally-excellent display and keep his cool to win in Buenos Aires.

Bird led all but one lap of the race, dropping down to second when Nelson Piquet Jr. went one lap longer during the pit window, and managed to see off challenges from Nicolas Prost and Antonio Felix da Costa in the first half of the race.

Da Costa’s hopes of repeating his victory in Buenos Aires from 2015 were ended just before pitting when his car came to a halt, prompting the stewards to send out the safety car which bunched the field.

Buemi had fought his way up into the points from 18th on the grid by the time he came in to swap cars, and made light work of Stephane Sarrazin before setting his sights on perennial title rival Lucas di Grassi in second place.

An exquisite move into the hairpin saw Buemi move into P2, and despite appearing to have a pace advantage over Bird in the closing stages, the Briton put up an impenetrable defence to keep the Renault e.dams driver back on the final two laps.

Low on power, Buemi had to drop back at the final few corners, giving Bird the breathing room to take his third Formula E win and the first since the start of the DS Virgin partnership.

Di Grassi was unable to join the leading pair at the front for the last fight, dropping back to save power, but managed to finish third. Sarrazin finished fourth for Venturi ahead of Prost and Loic Duval, while Nick Heidfeld’s return from injury went well as he finished seventh.

Robin Frijns enjoyed a good start in the Andretti, running as high as fourth early on, but ultimately dropped back to finish seventh. Oliver Turvey and Bruno Senna rounded out the points in P9 and P10 respectively.

Jean-Eric Vergne bounced back from food poisoning overnight to finish 11th, narrowly missing out on points, while Nelson Piquet Jr. ended the race P13. Daniel Abt and Simona de Silvestro enjoyed quiet races en route to 13th and 14th, while Mike Conway blew his chance of points on debut with a late spin, dropping him to P15 at the end. Jerome d’Ambrosio was the last classified finisher in 16th place.

Manor WEC program launched

Photo: Manor
Photo: Manor
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One of the intriguing elements to come out of yesterday’s entry list reveal for the FIA World Endurance Championship and 24 Hours of Le Mans was the confirmation of Manor in LMP2.

Sporting director Graeme Lowdon and team principal John Booth hinted something new was up not long after the final Grand Prix of the season, when the pair took their bows from what had been the Manor Marussia Formula 1 Team at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

That “something” was revealed on Friday as an Oreca 05 Nissan in the stacked LMP2 class – a 10-car class – with Tor Graves, a past Manor driver, confirmed as the first new driver for the effort.

“We are delighted to be joining the World Endurance Championship. It is a fantastic series that visits iconic tracks all over the world. The level of competition is very high and we are really looking forward to racing again,” Booth said.

“The LMP2 class is specifically designed for teams independent of manufacturers and/or engine suppliers which places the focus firmly on how the team performs.

“I can’t wait to see the car running now. We have lots to do but we have a great team of people to get it all done.”

The team might be out before the Prologue test at Paul Ricard end of March, but it’s likely that test will mark the team’s first significant running. It should have its driver lineup settled by then, as well.

Lowdon, who’s been bit by the sports car racing bug, expanded on the announcement.

“It’s really great to be racing again and the FIA World Endurance Championship provides a fantastic challenge for us,” he said

“Preseason testing starts soon and there is a lot to do but we have never been afraid of a bit of hard work.

“There is a real buzz within the team at the moment, we have enjoyed great support from the fans over the last few months and we are very keen for them to get fully involved in what we are doing. We all have a great passion for motorsport and we are keen to share that passion.”