Gig ’em, Gordon: 4-time Cup champ running Texas A&M colors this weekend

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With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visiting Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has taken on a deep shade of maroon.

We can thank Texas A&M’s Dwight Look College of Engineering for that. In a deal similar to that of Jamie McMurray running (and winning) with the Auburn colors last fall at Talladega, Charles Shaver – the CEO of Gordon’s main sponsor, Axalta Coating Systems, and an A&M graduate – has paid for Gordon’s car to carry the Aggie maroon and white at TMS.

In addition to the special livery, 28 students from Texas A&M Engineering will be able to learn more about how their lessons apply to the world of motorsports as VIP guests for the weekend.

Prior to heading for TMS, Gordon made the rounds at the A&M campus in College Station, Texas, where he showed off his special ride and joined up with A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin to watch a practice.

The four-time Sprint Cup champion didn’t go to college, but is hopeful that his own children will be able to have that privilege when they grow up.

“Every day, I wish that I had more of an education and just that experience in life, I think, is huge,” Gordon said. “Just going to college – the responsibilities of attending classes, having fun at parties – you know, the balance between being more responsible as an adult and stepping into the next stage of your life.”

As for interacting with the A&M students, Gordon says they’ve been glad to have the chance to interact with the Hendrick Motorsports engineers in a real-world setting.

A solid engineering program has become essential in NASCAR as the sport has become more sophisticated in its technology. Nowadays, top squads like HMS have legions of engineers on their payroll, all dedicated to squeezing more speed, more handling – more everything – out of their race cars.

Gordon figures that for those outside of the day-to-day life of the sport, that aspect can be overlooked. Thus, he welcomes the opportunity to help show aspiring engineers a possible plan for their future.

“I think people that aren’t in the Carolinas or at the race track every weekend underestimate how much technology and engineering goes into what we do,” he explained. “If you just go to Hendrick Motorsports and see the growth in engineering and people that are engineers, you start to get a sense of why this tie is so crucial and important.

“We’ve tapped into an engineering schools and students more around the Carolinas and the Midwest, but I’m not so sure we’ve tapped into schools like Texas A&M, and I think a lot of it is because maybe they just don’t realize that could be a potential path for them…”

Shank: Ahead of year two, Acura NSX GT3 ‘100 percent better’

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A new-look lineup will greet Michael Shank Racing’s now customer-based Acura NSX GT3 program for the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season.

The car itself, however, appears a much more solidly well-rounded machine after its first full year of racing and development in 2017, which should help the team build on the performance and results achieved last year.

“It’s 100 percent better,” Shank told NBC Sports at last week’s PRI Show in Indianapolis. “Steve Eriksen (vice-president and COO, Honda Performance Development) mentioned (in a meeting), it’s so much better than we were last year. I don’t know what that means ultimately, except to say we’re more prepared.”

Owing to IMSA’s designation that the team can’t run a works, factory-backed entry as that was only allowed for one year, the MSR GT Daytona class effort in 2018 takes on a customer role.

The team has a new full-season pairing in the No. 93 Acura, with IMSA veteran and multi-time Pirelli World Challenge champion Lawson Aschenbach alongside Justin Marks, a bit of a renaissance man in his own right as a NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner and one of the principals of DryLake Group, which runs the GoPro Motorplex among other businesses.

At present, the team’s No. 86 Acura for Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente is a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup entry, but the team and Acura are working towards filling that car for a full season return with additional drivers to be named later.

Mario Farnbacher and AJ Allmendinger have been announced as two of the extra drivers for Daytona for MSR’s team, Farnbacher also being confirmed with the No. 93 car for the full Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup schedule.

Shank explained how methodical he has to be from a budgetary planning standpoint and how this new look lineup came together.

“It never comes real easy. I don’t want to cry too much because when you look at this, I’ve got 25 full-time people, I’ve got a fairly large budget for a “smaller team” – we’re not poor, but we just have to watch our steps,” he said.

“The reason why we’re still here after 20 years is that we’ve been conservative financially, meaning we only do what we can do and then we got to draw a line. As much as I want another set of $100,000 dampers, I got to pull back!”

“We truly, truly got lucky with that one (the No. 93 car). Justin flies under the radar a little but, but I promise you he’s going to surprise some people this year. Once we get into January – he’s got some kind of cool commitments in early January, he’s climbing a mountain in South America, one of the tallest in the world. He’s going to contend for a lot of cool stuff this year, I’m anxious to see where he goes.”

Aschenbach, for his part, is relishing the opportunity. He and Shank have known each other more than a decade going back to when he tested an Atlantic car, and he and Marks have finally synced up after years of wanting to work together.

Lawson Aschenbach. Photo: Courtesy of IMSA

“Michael’s assembled a very successful team. It’s a professional organization. It’s very well managed with a common goal of winning,” Aschenbach told NBC Sports. “Even for a seat fitting you feel at home. It made the decision very easy. I have a lot of respect for Shank, and for what he’s accomplished. He’s always in the paddock with a program. You have to give props to that, to have that staying power.

“When I started to realize I’d have to move from Stevenson, Justin was my first call, strictly because we’ve been friends for so long. He wanted to do more sports car racing. He did great in the Turner BMW last year, and I think it re-energized him to focus on sports car racing in the future.

“I tested at Sebring a few laps in the Acura. It’s definitely different than the Audi to suit that. But that’s a part of racing where nothing out of the norm. I was very impressed with the car. You can tell they’ve worked really hard in a lot of specific areas, and that lets you see how successful it is. Winning two IMSA races against the caliber of competition in the first year was an incredible effort and showed the dedication of Acura, HPD, Michael Shank Racing and the drivers assembled.”

One of the unfortunate side effects is that Ozz Negri, who’s been as much a Shank lifer as the team has been, doesn’t appear to be in the frame for another year. He’s been with Shank for nearly 15 years.

“It’s just circumstances,” Shank reflected. “We’re talking about 14 straight years of working together (with Ozz). I haven’t gotten real sad about it because I feel like times change sometimes. His contribution to our team is so much more than driving a race car. So, it’s just fortunate that’s it has to come to this. Hopefully, he’ll be a part of our team somehow, some way.”

Andy Lally (Magnus Racing) and Jeff Segal (Scuderia Corsa) have also moved on to new teams next year, although both have experience with those teams.