NASCAR: Aric Almirola’s your wild card Chase entry for 2014

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We knew it had to be someone, and on Sunday in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400, we got our surprise winner that has benefited from NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.

Indeed Aric Almirola, the 11th different winner of 2014, has now gone from winless and 23rd in the points to Chase entrant on the strength of being in the right place at the right time when NASCAR opted to call Sunday’s already rain-delayed race.

And Almirola’s win has reduced the number of Chase berths available for drivers without a win by one, down to five … for now.

Granted, over the last nine races before the Chase, you’d have still expected at least three more different winners between say, veterans Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer or Greg Biffle. Take the three potential winners to make a total of 13, and then add three at-large berths by virtue of points standings, and there would be your 16.

But with Almirola having secured one of the available six spots beyond the 10 prior winners, suddenly of that group of six, it’s now guaranteed one of them won’t be in the Chase.

With one more “wild card” race to go in the stretch of events before the Richmond cutoff in September – the Watkins Glen road course race in August – there remains the potential that another driver like an AJ Allmendinger, Brian Vickers or Almirola’s Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose could win that race and take away another at-large points berth.

None of this is to take away from Almirola and RPM’s accomplishments on Sunday. The win for Almirola is career validation in a sense – this is a driver who’s fought for the better part of six or seven years to fully make it into Sprint Cup, only really finding his footing the last year or two with RPM in the iconic and legendary “43.”

It’s about crew chief Trent Owens, a former Nationwide Series driver turned wrench-turner, winning his first ever Cup race on the box. It’s about competition director Sammy Johns, leading a team back from the brink of extinction a few years ago. And it’s about Richard Petty himself – with the team back in the winner’s circle for the first time since 1999, when it was still the iconic Petty Enterprises.

As the early “underdog” entry into the Chase, Almirola suddenly takes on the role occupied by other surprise Chase entrants in recent years – Kurt Busch with Furniture Row Racing a year ago, or Vickers with Red Bull Racing and Juan Pablo Montoya with Chip Ganassi Racing.

These are drivers you wouldn’t necessarily expect in the Chase, but like a baseball or football team getting hot at the right time, or right moment, they have themselves an opportunity to compete for a championship.

Perhaps a better analogy is one of the 43 team as an impressive mid-major basketball school that peaked late, won its conference championship, and captured an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament instead of a team from the power conferences (i.e. a Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports).

Heading into this weekend, you wouldn’t have projected Almirola as a title contender. But now, he and the 43 crew have a shot.

IndyCar has big plans on, off track for first test at Thermal Club: ‘It’s an amazing facility’

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Quantity isn’t a problem for NTT IndyCar Series drivers seeking source material for their first test on track at The Thermal Club. There’s plentiful video of the drivers making laps on the private track that bills itself as a world-class facility.

It’s quality that’s an issue with trying to do homework for their first (and possibly last) test on the 17-turn, 2.9-mile road course.

Thermal is billed as a motorsports country club of sorts, giving the rich and famous an opportunity to drive and store vintage cars at racing playground that has more than 200 members and $5 million, 30,000-square-foot homes sprouting constantly.

IndyCar’s arrival Thursday and Friday for its first full-field open test in the preseason since 2020 will mark a new era of professional racing at Thermal, which primarily has catered to amateurs (often in a fantasy camp-type setting).

Colton Herta tried doing some YouTube research on Thermal recently but gave up after watching the third lap of “some dude in a Ferrari” navigating the course that is nestled in the Coachella Valley just south of Joshua Tree National Park and north of the Salton Sea.

“It’s difficult to watch some of the onboards because it’s not really professional drivers, and they have like the cones set out on the track, where to turn in and where to get on the brakes, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” Herta said. “Yeah, I watched a little bit before I got too bored and turned away. But the track walk will be important. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”

The track walk happened Wednesday afternoon after two days of wall-to-wall media obligations at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Conor Daly and Scott McLaughlin were among many drivers who were antsy to head southeast to the ritzy track (where many drivers have been staying in high-end casitas on the 470-acre property this week). Herta said his main concern was having enough runoff area as drivers knock off the offseason rust because “you do tend to drop a wheel here and there, have a spin if you’re getting back in the car for the first time in a few months.”

“I sort of don’t really know where the track goes,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like I’m going to get lost out there.”

With IndyCar increasingly limiting test time, Daly said sessions such as Thermal “are really, really important. We can train all we want, but there’s nothing like getting in these cars to drive to really prepare yourself for the first race. It’s going to be important to try to do as many laps as possible.”

Of course, what makes Thermal even more rare is that it’s not on the IndyCar schedule nor has it been a testing venue in the past. Sebring International Raceway also doesn’t play host to a race, but it’s become a tried and true place for teams seeking to hone their setups.

An IndyCar Series hauler is unloaded Monday at The Thermal Club track ahead of preseason testing Thursday and Friday (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

Thermal will be the first time IndyCar is learning an entirely new track since the streets of Nashville nearly two years ago, but in this case, it’s unknown how applicable it’ll be in the future. Some drivers speculated that it could translate to Portland with its length (lap times are projected at more than a minute and 40 seconds), but it’s an unknown how slippery the surface will be for tire wear (probably 20-lap stints, which are relatively short).

“It’s hard when it comes to just two full days of testing because obviously some people will adapt to it quicker than others,” Daly said. “You might feel like a hero, then the next day you might feel like a zero because some people have caught up.

“But these days are important because hopefully it is an indication for us on all the permanent road circuits that we go: Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Indy GP. Hopefully it’s helpful for us in all those scenarios. We’ll see what happens, I guess. It doesn’t matter to us how fast we go, as long as we get something out of it, right? How do we judge some changes? If that’s great for a certain section of the track, right, that could represent a section of another road track we go to. There’s a lot that we can learn, for sure. Realistically we kind of have to keep ourselves  in check with our expectations.”

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said drivers “probably shouldn’t come out of here either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance. We’re never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn’t say that. We’re not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it’s not relevant.

“What it is relevant for and what I’m excited about is just being on track. We definitely need it on the 2 car. We have a lot of new people. We’re going to maximize this time by just treating it like a race weekend in that we’re doing all the things we would do on a normal weekend to be fast and work well and efficient together. When we come out of the weekend we’ll have something to look at, what did we do well or not well. We have a good, relevant conversation piece to take into (the season opener at) St. Pete. From that standpoint it’s excellent. If we finish 15th on the charts, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.”

Said Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal: “I’m not sure how much (the Thermal track) relates. We’re running a Barber tire, similar to the Laguna Seca tire. Who knows what the track grip is like in the desert here. If you look at a lot of the corners, a lot of hairpins, a lot of slow speed corners, but then you’ve got like the end of the back straight is quite a fast left-hander. But they’re varying shapes of corners, decreasing radius, on increasing radius. We don’t have any tracks that do that traditionally.

“We’ve got to pick and choose exactly what we get out of it, but I’m all on board for the Thermal thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m not. I think it was great to have change. We’ve kind of gone to the same places time and time and time and time again. It’s good to see something new.”

IndyCar also will be measuring the results of the test beyond timing and scoring.

The Indianapolis Star reported there have been informal talks about having a pro-am event in the future. With the test closed to the general public but open to its high-dollar clientele, there could be potentially millions of liquid capital at stake for future team investment if the Thermal Club’s members take a shine to IndyCar.

Thermal was throwing a posh welcoming event Wednesday night that was expected to have drivers, series executives and residents mingling with dancing and drinks.

Simon Pagenaud, who has explored the concept of starting a motorsports country club in his native France, is intrigued by the long-term marriage of IndyCar and Thermal.

“This kind of racetrack — what they do with their members, the passion of cars —  is really something,” Pagenaud said.

Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson likes the appeal of testing in Southern California instead of Central Florida.

“This time of the year, it’s really hard to find places for us to go testing,” Ericsson said. “I’ve only been here for four years, starting my fifth year, and I feel like I’ve done I don’t know how many days of testing at Sebring.

“For me, this is a lot better to come here. I like the idea a lot of having the preseason testing back on the calendar to get all the teams and drivers together.”

Said Alexander Rossi, who will be making his debut in an Arrow McLaren Chevrolet this week: “It’s always a difficult situation in January, February, in the United States to find a track that has the appropriate climate. Not only do we have a beautiful place to come with seemingly good weather, but you’re introducing IndyCar to obviously a demographic that has an interest in racing, with some decent capital behind them. They may not know of IndyCar. They may have known of IndyCar but never seen it in person.

“We’re able to bring and showcase what we believe is the best series in the world in front of people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen it before.”

McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist already has been staying at the villas inside the track all week.

“It’s an amazing facility,” he said. “I’ve never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks.

“I don’t know if there’s ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I’m just pumped to be in California in January. There’s worse places to be.”