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

SCCA postpones F4 U.S. Championship race debut

F4 Test Car
Photo: F4 U.S. Championship
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Citing a lack of time in manufacturing, SCCA Pro Racing announced the new Formula 4 U.S. Championship race debut will be delayed.

The first weekend had been scheduled May 27-28 at Lime Rock Park, along with the Pirelli World Challenge.

The full release is below:

SCCA Pro Racing announced its debut weekend of the Formula 4 United States Championship has been postponed due to delays in manufacturing of a sufficient number of cars to meet the team demand.

The first race weekend, scheduled for May 27-28 at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Connecticut, will be rescheduled at a track and date to be determined to maintain a five-event championship series. The F4 U.S. Championship will now make its debut June 10-12 at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, New Jersey.

“Regrettably, if the Lime Rock event were to go ahead as planned, we would be in jeopardy of leaving some drivers and teams who are committed to the series disenfranchised,” SCCA Pro Racing President and CEO Derrick Walker said. “We felt it was important that all drivers who want to participate in the F4 United States Championship be given a chance to do so. We appreciate the loyalty they have shown us.”

Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) regulations require a minimum of 12 cars for each championship event, which currently would not have been an issue for Lime Rock. However, delaying the start of the inaugural event of the F4 U.S. Championship provides the opportunity to fulfill all car orders exceeding the FIA requirement.

“We are very proud to be constructing the first FIA approved monocoque chassis in America,” said Crawford Composites President Max Crawford, whose company is producing the chassis. “We believe the F4 U.S. Championship is the start of something great for American motorsports. I fully endorse the decision to reschedule the first race, and we look forward to getting all the drivers in the lineup in New Jersey.”

Crawford is confident a sufficient quantity of cars can be produced for the current number of drivers committed to the F4 U.S. Championship to debut in New Jersey.

Justice Brothers to run 100th Indy 500 with Townsend Bell

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Bell and Justice. Photo: Justice Brothers
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A family with more than 70 years of presence at the Indianapolis 500 – the Justice family – will continue its involvement this year with Townsend Bell’s No. 29 Andretti Autosport Honda, which features California Pizza Kitchen and Robert Graham as co-primary partners.

The Justice Brothers logo will adorn Bell’s car as the family reunites with Bell, to continue a relationship dating to 2001 when Bell won the Indy Lights championship driving for Dorricott Racing.

The full release is below, and we’ll have more on the Justice family in a separate post later this month on MotorSportsTalk.

The Justice Brothers Family is once again returning to the legendary Indianapolis 500 this May to celebrate their 71st year of involvement at the 100th running with the partnership of Townsend Bell. Bell will be driving the No. 29 car for Andretti Autosport.

The company’s relationship with Bell dates back to his championship winning Indy Lights season in 2001 with Dorricott Racing.

“I’m excited to partner with Townsend in celebration of our family’s 71st year of involvement with the Indy 500, starting in 1946. With it being the 100th running of the race and Townsend teaming up with Andretti Autosport it will guarantee some special memories,” said President and CEO Ed Justice, Jr.

May the Force be with you: Happy 67th birthday, John Force

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If you’re a John Force fan, May 4 should be a national holiday.

The winningest driver in NHRA history and a record 16-time Funny Car champion turns 67 today.

And John Harold Force, born this day in 1949 in Bell Gardens, California, is still going as strong as ever.

After six of the first 24 races of the 2016 season, Force is ranked fifth in the Funny Car standings, just 55 points behind youngest daughter Courtney Force, who is tied for the points lead with Tim Wilkerson.

And daughter Brittany Force, who has two wins this season, is leading the Top Fuel points – making it the first time in NHRA history that sisters have led the point standings in two different pro classes at the same time.

All four of Force’s daughters – Adria, Ashley, Brittany and Courntey – are obviously the apple of his eye. But they let NBC Sports in on a little secret: dear old dad is one of the hardest people to shop for when it comes to birthdays and holidays.

After all, what do you give a guy who has pretty much everything?

Here’s how Ashley describes a typical birthday for her father:

Ashley Force Hood

“My dad is impossible to buy a gift for. Every gift I give him, he gives back to me at the next holiday. Or I hear him giving my gifts out to co-workers: ‘Here Joan (JFR office manager) take these car wash coupons. Here Steve (VP of Sales), here’s some movie tickets.’ I also opened a closet one day at his house and found a bunch of gifts we’d given him over the years like a carnival hot dog maker, and slippers from Sharper Image.

“Every year he tells us not to get him anything and last year my mom actually didn’t get him anything, just like he wanted. He whined and complained for weeks that she didn’t get him anything and how crushed he was! She’ll never make THAT mistake again!

Adria Force High

“So this year they just got a kitten (his name is Champs!) and I’m getting dad a gift card for PetsMart … and some Claritin!”

Force’s oldest daughter, Adria, has buying gifts for her father down-pat: “German Chocolate cake, wine, homemade tacos and Tommy Bahama dress shirts he wishes we wouldn’t spend the money on, but he really loves!”

Courtney Force

Here’s what Courtney Force had to say:

“One birthday, we tried to surprise our dad and drove him all the way out to Temecula, California, and pulled up to all these hot air balloons and told him we were taking him on a hot air balloon ride. He freaked out, refused to go and made us turn around and go home. We learned he had a fear of heights, so we never made that mistake again!”

And Brittany had this to add:

Brittany Force

“Every year when we bring up birthday celebrations to my dad we get the same response, “Don’t throw me a party, don’t buy me any gifts because I hate pretending to like them. Don’t get me a card and write a beautiful message in it cuz I have guilt when I have to throw it away. Don’t get me no cake because I have to fit in to my firesuit next week! And you all know how much I HATE surprises so don’t do that either!”

“Every year it’s a battle trying to convince him that we all want to celebrate his birthday. One year we decided to give him what he truly wanted, nothing! We took the whole family to dinner, bought no presents, no cards, no cake and didn’t sing happy birthday. When we got home he complained for a good hour that we obviously forgot his birthday or that we were playing a mean joke on him. He asked us where we were hiding the gifts and was asking if we baked a German chocolate cake or a Devils Food Cake. Whoops!!! Our mistake or his?!?!”

John Force, who recently joined Twitter, also received a number of congratulatory tweets, including:

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Munoz: “I haven’t reached my full potential”

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  Carlos Munoz of Columbia, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda IndyCar is introduced before the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Like fellow IndyCar rookie class-of-2014 alumnus Jack Hawksworth, Carlos Munoz’s results haven’t matched his pace and potential this year.

And while on the surface it looks like there have been a handful of mistakes this year for the third-year Colombian driver – and there have been – Munoz’s efforts to improve are probably being overshadowed by the overall team struggles at Andretti Autosport.

In a case where stats don’t tell the full story, Munoz’s finished eighth, 22nd, 12th and 14th in the opening four races – the 12th at Long Beach was the only time where he was highest of Andretti’s four cars. That’s left him 15th in points, five spots back of teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay but two and three clear of Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi, respectively, heading into the month of May.

Starts of 12th, 21st, 10th and 15th also tell a similar tale, although he’s been the highest starter of Andretti’s four cars in the last two races at Long Beach and Barber.

He’s been particularly quick in practice, though. He has top-five practice results of third (Barber FP1) and fourth (Barber FP3) and a handful of other top-10 results. Like others, nailing the balance in qualifying once on Firestone’s red alternate tires has been challenging.

Incidentally, his best finish of eighth at St. Petersburg came after a misguided passing attempt drew ire from Graham Rahal and created a parking lot in Turn 4.

Yet his best drives have come at Long Beach and Barber, where Munoz has been the quickest of the Andretti quartet through most of the weekend.

“I’ve been driving so good and feel so emotionally good in the car,” Munoz told NBC Sports. “You could see it in Long Beach; I never drove so good. I was quicker than Ryan at Long Beach… and his worst qualifying in Long Beach was fourth before that.

“Then Barber, I was really quick in practice. But then in qualifying, I lost the balance on the red tires.

“I’ve never been driving so good as this year. Results haven’t shown that. The team has been lacking… it’s no secret. There’s a little bit of mechanical grip we need to find. As soon as we find it, I hope I’ll be able to fight for victories.

“I’ve done some mistakes. But speed-wise, I’ve not driven better.”

Barber was a tough weekend for Munoz, having triggered the first-lap accordion effect accident between he, Hawksworth and Mikhail Aleshin. The slow start helped contribute to the chaos.

“When you’re in the back – I checked up – but I had Aleshin in front of me,” he explained. “He accelerated, then braked. I had to lock the rear tires. It was too close. It was my mistake… but the start was way too slow.”

Overall it’s a fascinating fusion for Munoz, who overachieved as a rookie in 2014, then secured his first win last year at Detroit race one but otherwise struggled for competitiveness along with the rest of the Andretti team.

Now though he feels he’s in a better spot.

Munoz has rebounded from a heavy practice accident at Phoenix in early April to find this newfound burst of personal performance. He cleaned up his stats to where he has only had two failures to finish from contact in his last 28 starts, compared to four in his first 13 races.

The impact at Phoenix, he said, was his “first big accident” in IndyCar and forced him to quickly forget about it and move on.

“It was a big hit; if you saw the numbers you’d be amazed,” Munoz said. “But as a driver you have to forget about it and move on. After practice to go back in the car, that was good. It was my first actual big hit.

“The team always said, it’s always one. I had a hit at Fontana, replacing E.J. (Viso, in 2013). But this one was big. I know it’s part of racing when you crash. Try to move on. I feel comfortable.”

Munoz has felt better in terms of setup contribution this year, noting whereas Hunter-Reay or Andretti had been primarily used as the baseline setup in the past, now he’s able to play a greater role.

Additionally, Munoz relates to IndyCar freshman Rossi, who’s learning the ropes in this series thus far as Munoz was two years ago.

“I think this year has been better, probably because I’ve been fast compared to my teammates,” he said. “We work as a team. I know if Marco likes it, that’s better, because more or less we have the same feeling.

“Rossi was (with us) in Texas. And that’s where we try to help him as a rookie. I was a rookie two years ago. So yeah, I helped him. This is hard to get used to.”

He’s also determined and focused on being his own man in the sport, besides being “that other Colombian” besides Juan Pablo Montoya.

Colombian interest has been high in recent years with Montoya, Munoz, Gabby Chaves, Sebastian Saavedra and Carlos Huertas all having been in the series of late. Montoya remains the benchmark but Munoz and Huertas are race winners; Saavedra a polesitter and Chaves a double rookie-of-the-year in 2015, although the latter three are sidelined.

Comparisons are inevitable and while Munoz credits Montoya for getting him interested in racing, he doesn’t want to be known as “JPM 2.0.”

“He’s been a big example since I was a child,” Munoz admits. “I remember when I saw him winning his first 500 (in 2000; Munoz was 8 years old), we all went on the streets and celebrated! We were all waving the flag.

“He showed us the path to become a professional race car driver. But I want to make my name. I want to be my own man. I want to win races.”

Even more fascinating about Munoz is that while this is his third full-time season in IndyCar, he’s still only 24 years old, with room to grow. This is his fifth season in America, having done two years of Indy Lights prior in 2012 and 2013.

The setup advancements and aero kit improvements Honda has made has made the car better to drive this year, as Munoz looks to break out of the tightly bunched, yet crowded, IndyCar midpack.

“I think with the new aero kit, on the road course, I’ve felt much stronger, much more confident,” he said. “It’s easier to drive. It’s a lot more consistent. We had a nasty rear last year.

“There’s loads still to learn,” he added. “Helio (Castroneves) and Tony (Kanaan) learn stuff each race when they keep going. They’ve been doing this for a long time and they learn each time.

“My curve of learning, I still have a lot to get better at, both ovals and road courses. I haven’t reached my potential.

“As a driver or person, you’re never going to reach your potential.”