A.J. Allmendinger needs a win in these final five regular season races to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. So while he’d rather earn a victory without controversy this weekend at Watkins Glen, he’ll take one any way he can get it.
When asked about what he’d do to win if he were running second on the final lap in Sunday’s Cheez-It 355, Allmendinger said he’d do “whatever it takes” while noting that “you race people how they race you.”
“That sets the idea of how you are going to race that person throughout the course of a race,” he said today at the Glen before running fourth in the first Sprint Cup practice session of the weekend.
“When it comes down to the end having a shot to win this race – I’ve been doing this for a while and it’s a tough sport. Unless you are Jimmie Johnson or somebody like that you don’t get that many opportunities to win a race.
“Whatever I have to do to win it, but I will be the first one to say I don’t want to win it in controversy either. I want to go out right and say ‘I earned that win and I won it the right way.’ If I have to stray a little bit, I will.”
He then elaborated on what “a little bit” meant: “I won’t come barreling in the corner and out right just crash the guy on purpose and just say I won the race because of that. But if he’s got to be moved out of the way or whatever, I’m going to do it.”
‘Dinger can’t afford to hold back right now, as he sits 113 points behind the 16th-place cutoff in the Chase standings. Only a victory will be able to get him a post-season berth, which would be a feather in the cap of his single-car JTG Daugherty Racing team.
“The main thing for our test was to really just make the box a lot smaller, so when we got here, we didn’t have to throw big things at it and hope to make a big difference,” he said.
“I felt like we really shortened the box in our race car to what we need to try just little stuff throughout the weekend to keep up with the race track. For that reason, I thought it was a successful test.”
But will that extra work pay off the way he hopes it will? Allmendinger said he didn’t want to make the weekend “all or nothing” but knows that he and his team are capable of something big.
“I feel like if we do the right things, we can be in contention to win the race,” he said.
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”