Rolex 24 - Testing

AJ Allmendinger ready to make the most of second chance with new team


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

Mercedes AMG Petronas tops its 2014 point total, despite fewer points available

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The end of the Formula 1 season just completed means a chance to compare stats and points standings year-on-year. So forgive the dive into nerddom, but it’s the most wonderful time of year to bust out the calculators.

We’ll start first with the double World Champions, Mercedes AMG Petronas, who have managed to top their tally in the Constructor’s Championship from 2014.

For the second consecutive year, Mercedes has won 16 of 19 races and gone 1-2 in the driver’s championship.

Where they’ve improved: they set the record for 15 front row lockouts, they took 12 1-2 race finishes after taking “only” 11 in 2014, and, perhaps most impressively, topped its overall points total despite having fewer points on offer.

The double points finale last year meant a maximum of 86 points was possible (50 and 36 for first and second rather than the 25 and 18).

Yes, Mercedes scored fewer points this year at Abu Dhabi than last… but still scored the maximum achievable (43 of 43 versus 50 of 86).

It meant Mercedes ended 2015 with two more points than it did in 2014 – 703 to 701. Lewis Hamilton’s own tally went down by three, from 384 to 381, but teammate Nico Rosberg made up the difference with a five-point gain from 317 to 322.

Percentage-wise, Mercedes scored 703 of a maximum possible 817 points – or 86.07 percent of the potential maximum number (43 points, times 19 races).

It’s an uptick from the still remarkable 81.51 percent of the potential maximum last year (701 of 860).

To put in perspective how dominant that number is by contrast to the rest of the field, Mercedes scored 703 of 1,919 total points (101 total points per race, times 19 races) on offer in 2015.

That meant as one team, Mercedes brought home 36.63 percent of all points available in 2015, which is up from 34.7 percent last year (701 of 2,020 points).

The remaining eight teams that scored were left to divide up the remaining 63 and change percent… or an average of 7.92 percent, per team, or so.

So for 2016, on top of wishing Ferrari and the rest of the field can up their game to match, one of the early story lines to watch will be whether Mercedes can sustain this incredible amount of statistical dominance from its on-track success.

Audi to test six young guns in its DTM car

Photo: Audi
Photo: Audi
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It’s not just Mercedes (and Kevin Magnussen) that’s testing young guns in one of its DTM cars this week at Jerez.

Audi announced that it would give a six-pack of youngsters a shot to test as well, from Tuesday to Thursday, at the same place in the Audi RS 5 DTM.

Those six include:

  • Matthew Brabham (21/USA)
  • Mitch Evans (21/New Zealand)
  • Antonio Giovinazzi (21/Italy)
  • Ben Hanley (30/Great Britain)
  • Alex Palou (18/Spain)
  • Arthur Pic (24/France)

Note most of these six have or had some level of open-wheel experience, with Evans having tried his hand successfully in a couple different sports cars this year. The young Kiwi finished second in his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans after winning at Spa in his sports car debut, driving Jota Sport’s Gibson 015S Nissan.

Brabham comes over to test the DTM car after racing primarily in the Mazda Road to Indy the last four years. He won the 2012 USF2000 and 2013 Pro Mazda titles, then raced the full 2014 and partial 2015 seasons in Indy Lights; he’s also driven in Formula E for Andretti Autosport and in the Stadium Super Trucks.

Kevin Hart, Ludacris, Marco Andretti head to Abu Dhabi for F1 finale

Marco Andretti
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Marco Andretti has had a good run of attending season finale events.

Obviously, the 28-year-old grandson of Mario Andretti rounded out his 10th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series at its own season finale at Sonoma, finishing 11th and then ending the year ninth in points.

But Andretti told NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan, among other reporters, at Phoenix International Raceway where he’d tested his IndyCar and then made the promotional rounds that he’d have a busy next couple weeks ahead.

“I’m watching too many races. I need to be in them!” Andretti said. “(Homestead), I’m going as Jeff Gordon’s guest. Then going to Abu Dhabi Formula 1. (Our season) needs to be longer.”

Last week, he and fellow IndyCar stars Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe made the trip to Homestead-Miami Speedway – incidentally, as did Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton – to witness Jeff Gordon’s final drive before hanging up his helmet after 23 incredible years at NASCAR’s top level.

This week, it was Marco’s turn to hit Hamilton’s usual turf, as he and his friends Ludacris and Kevin Hart made the trip to Abu Dhabi to witness the F1 finale.

Marco, who had a Honda Racing F1 test in the late 2000s but never was able to make the move to emulate both Mario and Michael, each of whom raced in F1, appeared wowed by the Yas Marina Circuit once he arrived from Chicago.

Abu Dhabi F1 quals!! @kevinhart4real @ludacris

A photo posted by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

Yas is hands down the most insane facility ! #AbuDhabi. Wish I was driving !!

A photo posted by Marco Andretti (@marcoandretti) on

Andretti, Luda, Hart and crew met up with Infiniti Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo at the weekend.

Andretti is continuing the trip into this week, with further posts via his Instagram page.

Hart – one of this country’s most talented and recognizable comedians at the moment – also appeared to enjoy the atmosphere.

As did Ludacris, who posted this view from a yacht.

The only way to watch the F1 Race in Abu Dhabi. #yachtlife

A photo posted by @ludacris on

The vacation crew found Hamilton after the race on Sunday night.

Hamilton’s friend, another artist in Big Sean, who’d performed the halftime show at the Philadelphia Eagles-Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit, also made the flight out to Abu Dhabi.

Complete with other more obscure, random celebrities like Rick Astley – who apparently “Rick-rolled” free practice two coverage on the world feed – Edgar Davids and Dwight Yorke, it was a weekend of interesting folks hitting Abu Dhabi. My MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith noted those three, below, in various tweets over the weekend.

Out of Thanksgiving, IndyCar’s open spots are exactly in same place as this time last year

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Now that it’s a new work week and the tryptophan has hopefully worked itself through your system, you’ve had and enjoyed your family time, it’s time for the final few full work weeks of the 2015 calendar before the next round of holidays – Christmas time.

Those who already have confirmed seats for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season are certainly thankful for what they have.

Meanwhile if we flash back some 12 months to look at the then-available amount of talent waiting in the wings, here’s what stood as the unconfirmed seats:

  • Chip Ganassi Racing, fourth car (along with a formal confirmation of the full lineup)
  • Andretti Autosport, fourth car (plus a possible fifth)
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, second car
  • KVSH Racing/KV Racing Technology, second car
  • CFH Racing, No. 20 road and street course driver alongside Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • Dale Coyne Racing, both cars
  • Bryan Herta Autosport, first car

Flash forward 12 months later, and the situation is exactly identical. Those exact same seats have yet to be confirmed for 2016.

The only differences from above is that the first three drivers at Chip Ganassi Racing – four-time and defending champion Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball – already have been formally confirmed for 2016, and Sage Karam has not.

Karam’s manager told a little over a week ago that his contract was not retained for 2016; that said, it’s “only” November and conceivably he could return if enough budget is found.

Sebastien Bourdais is still anticipated to return with KVSH Racing for a third season; A.J. Foyt Enterprises also hasn’t formally confirmed, but is expected to keep its same lineup of Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth.

Gabby Chaves is expected to return for a second season with BHA, while of the other seats listed above, the second SPM seat is the most intriguing option.

Proof then that the more things change in IndyCar, the more they stay the same. And when there’s very little news on the driver market… there’s very little news on the driver market.