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

Vettel disappointed to finish behind Red Bulls in Malaysia F1 qualifying

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel was left disappointed following qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday at Sepang after finishing behind both Red Bull drivers in Q3.

Vettel took his first Formula 1 victory for Ferrari in Malaysia last year, but has failed to reach the top step of the podium in 2016 as the team has slipped behind Red Bull in the pecking order.

With Mercedes dominating proceedings in Malaysia over one lap, Vettel had hoped to finish as the best of the rest in qualifying.

However, the German could only finish fifth in Q3, over seven-tenths of a second behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton and just two-tenths off P3 on the grid.

“We expected it to be tight, but we thought that we could have the upper hand in the end,” Vettel said.

“So I am disappointed to see both Red Bulls in front of us, but they were just a bit quicker. There was not a lot missing, but just enough, just over a tenth.

“We need to have a look into our data and see if we can pick it up later. In the end, we were hoping to be one row higher up, so in second, right behind the Mercedes.

“But for the race, nervertheless, we should have a good speed: the strategy will also be important tomorrow.

“There is a bit of room for manoeuvre, as everybody has to use the harder tire, which might make it interesting. And then there is also the fact that we are in Malaysia, so there might be some rain, or just the heat as a factor.”

Teammate Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth in the second SF16-H car, the Finn left frustrated by traffic during his final qualifying attempt.

“It was a pretty smooth running until the last try: then I had some traffic on the out lap and struggled with the tires to make them work in the first two corners, so I ran a bit wide,” Raikkonen explained.

“It was a decent qualifying session but it’s painful when you have such a bad last try. The handling of the car has been pretty ok and I was hoping for a bit more, but tomorrow we’ll try to do better.

“We don’t know what will happen and obviously we are not in the ideal starting position. The tarmac is new so it’s hard to say where it’s going to go and which tire will be the best, it will be a lot down to the conditions.

“We have to do our own best and see what that brings in the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Formula V8 3.5 to race at COTA next year, supporting WEC round

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The Formula V8 3.5 Series will race at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas the first time next year in support of the FIA World Endurance Championship weekend in September.

Formula V8 3.5 is currently embarking on its inaugural campaign, emerging from the ashes of the Formula Renault 3.5 series in 2015 after it lost manufacturer backing.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the single-seater series would be linking up with the WEC in 2017 as a support championship, appearing on the undercard at six rounds.

On Saturday, series officials confirmed that as well as racing at Silverstone, Spa and the Nürburgring alongside WEC, Formula V8 3.5 would also be visiting Austin, Mexico City and Bahrain in 2017.

Fuji Speedway in Japan had originally been slated to host a round of the 3.5-litre series, only for the race to be moved to Austin on grounds of costs.

During its Formula Renault 3.5 days, the championship produced a number of current Formula 1 drivers including Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Kevin Magnussen and Carlos Sainz Jr. Its final champion was Oliver Rowland, who now races in GP2.

The addition of Formula V8 3.5 to the WEC weekend at COTA ensures that the endurance series will not race alone following the break-up of the Lone Star Le Mans double-header with IMSA for 2017.

Rosberg rues Q3 mistakes after missing out on Malaysia pole

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg was left ruing two mistakes during the final part of Formula 1 qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday after missing out on pole position at Sepang.

Rosberg arrived in Malaysia leading the F1 drivers’ championship for the first time since the middle of July following a string of victories in Belgium, Italy and Singapore.

Rosberg led the opening practice session on Friday, but struggled to match the pace of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton through FP2 and FP3 before falling behind once again in qualifying.

An error on his first Q3 lap left Rosberg fifth on the provisional grid before rallying with his second effort to lift himself onto the front row, albeit with another mistake at the final corner to finish four-tenths of a second behind Hamilton.

“Lewis’ lap was very quick so it was always going to be difficult. I would have come close but unfortunately I had a mistake in the last corner,” Rosberg said.

“Something just wasn’t going right there in that last corner, I just couldn’t get the settings right, I was always getting an oversteer moment into there.

“But anyway, second place, we’ll live with that now. As we know from this year, second place does not mean that victory is not possible tomorrow. We’ve seen that so many times. Still very optimistic for tomorrow.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton: Emphatic Malaysia pole lap ‘could have been faster’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates qualifying on pole position in parc ferme during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes that his emphatic Q3 lap that secured him pole position for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix “could have been faster”.

Hamilton stormed to his fourth Formula 1 pole in Malaysia in the past five years on Saturday at the Sepang International Circuit, recording a fastest lap time of 1:32.850 to beat Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by four-tenths of a second.

“Just a huge thank you to the team who continue through the whole year to improve,” Hamilton said after the session.

“To come here, this year it’s the best the car has been here, and of course this year the tires are obviously better.

“Great work done coming into this weekend and over the past few weeks with Nico’s wins, but today the car felt fantastic. I really enjoyed the lap.”

The lap was the fastest at Sepang since qualifying for the 2005 race, but when asked about it, Hamilton wryly said it “could have been faster.”

The Briton locked up on his second flying lap towards the end of Q3, forcing him to abort his run early and settle for his first effort in the session.

“Of course I’m very happy and grateful for my lap but you always want to finish the last lap. I think there’s more time there,” Hamilton said, before expressing his wariness over Red Bull and Ferrari’s race pace.

“I think tomorrow, provided the conditions are like this, the track is generally better. It’s a lot smoother and seems to work better with the tires than it has in recent years.

“It will be a close race for sure because I think they had very good long runs, but I think we were looking quite strong also.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.