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

Lauda on Hamilton’s Baku pole lap: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

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Formula 1 legend and Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda was quick to heap praise on Lewis Hamilton after qualifying in Azerbaijan on Saturday, saying he had “never seen anything like” the Briton’s Q3 pole lap.

Hamilton charged to the 66th pole of his F1 career at the Baku City Circuit on Saturday after a last-ditch effort took his four-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton was overjoyed by the lap, having struggled to tame the Baku circuit during its inaugural race in 2016, and three-time world champion Lauda was equally as impressed.

“We had some problems on Friday, but the team really did a fantastic job to set the car up in the right way. And Lewis with his lap today… I’ve never seen anything like it,” Lauda said, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“It was not plain sailing at all, but a lot of thinking, digging, back to the factory, and in the end the improvement the engineers and mechanics did to the car is outstanding.

“And then Lewis, what he did today, no one else I think can do that.

“He’s fantastic, especially thinking about his lap time here, because the difference he makes to everybody – it’s only Lewis.”

Hamilton will go in search of his fifth win of the season in Baku on Sunday, with coverage of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET.

WATCH LIVE: Azerbaijan GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 8am ET

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Formula 1’s second trip to the new Baku City Circuit, but first actually as the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, takes place today and you can see it live this morning on NBCSN.

F1 AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX LIVE STREAM

Pre-race coverage runs for an hour from 8 a.m. ET through to 9 a.m. ET, with lights out at that point.

After his 66th career pole put him into second all-time, Lewis Hamilton looks to continue to close the battle for the championship and become the first driver to win a second straight race this season.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas driver leads teammate Valtteri Bottas, who starts second, and the pair of Scuderia Ferrari drivers of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel leads Hamilton by 12 points, 141-129, heading into today’s race. The Red Bull, Force India and Williams drivers were also in the top 10 in qualifying.

You can see a full run-down of what to watch for in today’s race in our Sunday preview.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET. CLICK HERE for NBC live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton providing updates and interviews throughout the race from Baku.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Azerbaijan Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 8am ET)

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The momentum that Lewis Hamilton gained with his victory in the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago carried through to qualifying in Baku on Saturday as he swept to his 66th pole position in Formula 1.

One year on from one of the most underwhelming performances of his grand prix career at the Baku City Circuit, Hamilton looked more at ease this time around, producing a stunning late lap in Q3 to bag pole ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

With F1 title rival Sebastian Vettel starting fourth for Ferrari, the odds are stacked in Hamilton’s favor as he bids to reclaim the lead of the drivers’ championship – but as we have seen already this weekend, the Baku track can punish the smallest of errors.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race.

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Bottas look to continue Mercedes’ momentum swing

Even after Lewis Hamilton’s convincing victory in Canada two weeks ago, Ferrari entered the Azerbaijan race weekend as the favorite given the SF70H car’s ‘work everywhere’ nature and the mix of high- and slow-speed sections in Baku.

Yet qualifying saw Mercedes deliver a result that was reminiscent of its devastating qualifying form last year when it was regularly gapping the field by a second. 2017 form it ain’t.

So does this point towards a sea change in the pecking order at the top of the field? Maybe. If Mercedes can sweep to another one-two here and convincingly beat Ferrari, it would be more proof that the “diva” W08 car is slowly starting to come good.

Can Red Bull get in the fight?

Red Bull may have been marooned as the third-fastest team for much of the season so far, but the early signs in Baku are that the team could be in the mix to fight with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field.

Max Verstappen led both practice sessions on Friday and nearly outqualified Vettel, pointing to an improved pace in the RB13 car, even if we didn’t see as much from Daniel Ricciardo after his prang in Q3.

While on raw pace Red Bull may struggle to keep up in the race, should things turn in its favor much as it did in Spain and Malaysia last year, Verstappen looks primed and ready to pounce.

Another one-stop race in store

Pirelli’s more conservative tires have certainly been a big talking point so far this season, with one-stop races appearing to become the norm, and you can expect the same in Baku today.

The super-soft tire was holding up so well that drivers were expecting to keep finding time on their starting set in Q3, only for the red flag to prompt a switch, and it is likely the compound will go deep into the race today as well.

While it may not offer many strategy variants, it does mean that teams can push for both the undercut and the overcut, as seen in Russia and Monaco earlier this year. So there are still a few routes to go down and options, particularly with the challenge of negotiating traffic through the tighter sections.

Will Baku madness finally strike?

Last year’s inaugural race in Baku caught many by surprise given its tameness and lack of incidents. No safety cars and no blockages around the circuit despite the earlier madness that had ensued in the GP2 race was not the expectation.

That might be different this year, though. We have already seen two drivers – Sergio Perez and Jolyon Palmer – get caught out at the tight Turn 8 section, while an incident in the Formula 2 feature event on Saturday prompted the race to end under a red flag.

As drivers look to gain positions and fight their way to the front, things could get crazy in Baku today…

McLare- oh you know the rest…

Yep, it’s another one of those days for McLaren. After ailing to its worst qualifying display of the season with a double-Q1 knockout on Saturday, racing director Eric Boullier said it was one of the worst weekends he’s had in racing. And you can understand why.

The Baku circuit’s tighter sections may suit the MCL32 chassis nicely, yet the high-speed stuff – and especially the never-ending home straight – lay the issues with the Honda power unit bare. Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne’s trap speeds were over 20 mph down on the leaders in qualifying – it’s a sad state of affairs.

From P18 and P19, McLaren can’t really expect much from its drivers today. That said, with an incident or two, and taking into account Alonso’s knack for dragging a car far beyond its rightful position, points are still a dream that are not totally out of the question…

2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
5. Max Verstappen Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Esteban Ocon Force India
8. Lance Stroll Williams
9. Felipe Massa Williams
10. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
12. Kevin Magnussen Haas
13. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
14. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
15. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso*
16. Romain Grosjean Haas
17. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
18. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren**
19. Fernando Alonso McLaren***
20. Jolyon Palmer Renault****

* Sainz received a three-place grid penalty after causing a collision in the Canadian Grand Prix.
** Vandoorne received a 35-place grid penalty for power unit and gearbox changes.
*** Alonso received a 40-place grid penalty for power unit changes.
**** Palmer failed to set a time in qualifying, and starts from last at the discretion of the stewards.

You can watch the Azerbaijan Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Another day, another photo finish in MX-5 Cup at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The first of three sports car races held Saturday at Road America featured a familiar ending in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires: a photo finish.

For the third time in four races, a margin of victory of less than a tenth of a second was all that decided the race. This time it was defending series champion Nathanial Sparks of Sick Sideways Racing, edging Atlanta Speedwerks’ Todd Lamb by 0.0468 of a second, for the victory.

Sparks’ win slots in second in the three photo finishes. Friday’s race one saw Patrick Gallagher beat Bryan Ortiz by 0.0263 of a second. At Indianapolis last weekend, Robert Stout beat Gallagher by 0.0632 of a second.

Sparks, also known as “Sparky,” explained how he made the move for the win.

“I fell back a little and I put my head down and really drove hard and I found myself back up at the front,” said Sparks. “Ortiz, Gallagher, and all those guys were driving so hard and there was battling for position and jockeying and moving around. I had a good run coming up out of the last corner and I managed to make my Mazda motor just power me up and just drove it home. It was super excited bringing it home for my Sick Sideways team today.”

Lamb, who came up short, offered his take: “That was a lot of fun. It’s my first podium of the season. We’re starting to get these cars figured out and starting to figure out who is going to work with us and who’s not. It’s been a lot of fun and a good learning experience this weekend, I’m looking forward to more!”

Gallagher led the standings by 39 points over Sparks heading into the weekend and extended the lead with his win on Friday.

“It was definitely more chaotic today, nobody wanted to work together like they did yesterday,” said Gallagher. “Everyone thought they had to be in second, but they didn’t realize they needed to be there until the last lap. Everybody was trying to get to second place from lap one, people were leaning on me and I just had to be careful. I got shoved around a little bit, but it’s a long season, and the championship points we got here this weekend are most important.”

The McCumbee McAleer Racing driver finished third today, his season worst result (hardly a bad thing for the Thornville, Ohio native) and still leads the points as the series heads next to the streets of Toronto, July 14-16, for Rounds 7 and 8. That is also part of a Verizon IndyCar Series weekend.