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 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.

Team Penske wins fourth straight race; first time since 2012

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When Will Power took the checkered flag in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, he delivered Team Penske its fourth straight win in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season.

And although Penske has won three straight races multiple times in recent races, it hasn’t won four times in a row in more than five years.

Power’s win Sunday in Pocono followed Josef Newgarden’s wins at Mid-Ohio and Toronto, and Helio Castroneves’ win at Iowa, to give Penske eight total wins on the season (Power three, Newgarden three, Castroneves one, Simon Pagenaud one) – the same eight Chevrolet has achieved with one team, while Honda has won the other six races with all five of its teams.

The last time Penske pulled off four wins in a row in IndyCar was in the first four races of the 2012 season, the first four races when the base Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced.

Castroneves won the season opener at St. Petersburg, while Power won the next three races at Barber, Long Beach and Brazil.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 15: Will Power of Australia drives the #12 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet during the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the streets of Long Beach on April 15, 2012 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Twice last year, Penske won three in a row, when Pagenaud won at Long Beach, Barber and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then Power (Toronto), Pagenaud (Mid-Ohio) and Power (Pocono) completed a same three in a row run later in the year.

The last IndyCar team to win four races in a row in a season was Chip Ganassi Racing in 2013, when Scott Dixon went three-in-a-row at Pocono and Toronto’s two races, then Charlie Kimball won at Mid-Ohio.

Power is also the first driver in 24 Pocono IndyCar races to win back-to-back races at the track, and it’s also impressive considering how much better he’s gotten on ovals over the years.

“It seriously means a lot. I love racing on ovals. Every oval win I get, I really, really enjoy because we don’t have many of them,” he said. “Yeah, to come back and win it again in a very different way this year, it was a crazy race, exciting to me, but yeah, feels fantastic to go back-to-back.”

Castroneves (3), Newgarden (2) and Pagenaud (1). Photo: IndyCar

Penske will head to Gateway Motorsports Park for this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with a chance to win its fifth straight race.

The last time the team did that was in the team’s record-setting 1994 CART season, when Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy won an incredible seven races in a row from Round 2 that year in Phoenix through Round 8 in Cleveland.

Fittipaldi won Phoenix, Unser won three in a row at Long Beach, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, Tracy won in Detroit and Unser won in Portland and Cleveland.

Jack Harvey confirmed for final two races with SPM

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Jack Harvey will make his return to Verizon IndyCar Series competition for the final two races of the year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, driving the No. 7 AutoNation SiriusXM SPM Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the team announced Monday morning.

The 24-year-old Englishman made his series debut in this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in a Michael Shank Racing entry with Andretti Autosport, and his results (started 27th and finished 31st) did not do justice to the effort he turned in and consistent improvement he made throughout the month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Harvey was unlucky to get caught out by Conor Daly’s crash in Turn 3, with debris knocking his car into a spin and coming to a stop in the North Chute in-between Turns 3 and 4.

From that point, Harvey has been working tirelessly to get back in a car for further races, with Sonoma being the target point identified as early as the week after the Indianapolis 500 in Detroit.

Shank confirmed to NBC Sports last week that he wouldn’t be attending any further races beyond the remainder of his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with his Acura NSX GT3 program, thus removing the possibility of a Shank-crewed, extra Andretti Autosport IndyCar at Sonoma.

Meanwhile Harvey’s opportunity arose at SPM – a team he twice nearly won the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title with – following Mikhail Aleshin’s roller coaster of a season that has seen the Russian and the team go their separate ways.

Harvey stayed connected to SPM, where he made his first two IndyCar tests at Sonoma in 2015 and Mid-Ohio in 2016, and as the team’s Indy Lights driver coach last year. This year he has coached for Neil Alberico at Carlin in Indy Lights.

Rumors of Harvey’s arrival into the No. 7 SPM Honda have circulated over the last week or so and were initially reported Sunday by the Indianapolis Star, and now today’s confirmation sees the likable young driver have his first crack at a pair of road courses in an IndyCar. He won at Sonoma in Indy Lights in 2014.

“It’s obviously a really exciting time for me, and I’m really pleased to rejoin everyone here at SPM,” Harvey said. “We had a lot of success together in Indy Lights, and I’m excited to be back with so many familiar faces. I’m really looking forward to getting on track at Watkins Glen, and although I haven’t driven there, it’s definitely been a bucket list track and one that I’ve been looking forward to driving on even before I came to America.

“I’m really excited to continue this journey with AutoNation and Sirius XM – I wouldn’t be racing this season without them. I can’t thank them enough for their continued support and I hope to be able bring home two solid results for the end of the year.”

SPM general manager Piers Phillips added, “We are very pleased to welcome Jack back to the team for our final two events of the season. Jack’s done a great job for the team throughout his Indy Lights career, and we have been looking at ways of incorporating him into our IndyCar program, so it’s been wonderful to see it come to fruition. We look forward to finishing out the year with he and James and hopefully with some results up front.”

Harvey follows Aleshin, Sebastian Saavedra and Robert Wickens as drivers of the No. 7 car this season. James Hinchcliffe, who has been in the team’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda all season, told NBC Sports last week that the team has done an “incredible” job handling the adverse circumstances of frequent driver changes.