Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 18 – Almirola, Allmendinger make Chase with upset wins

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December. We kicked things off Thursday with No. 20, the announcement that the Nationwide Series will be renamed and rebranded the Xfinity Series starting in 2015. And on Friday, we looked at No. 19, the 2015 Induction Class for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Today, we’re at No. 18, the upset regular season wins from Aric Almirola and A.J. Allmendinger that helped them make their first appearances in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

As part of the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, any regular season win automatically means a berth in NASCAR’s post-season run to the championship.

Almost immediately after the format’s debut, the three regular season restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega, plus the two road course events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, were grouped together as “wild card” events that could yield a Chase surprise.

As it turned out in 2014, we got two of them. The soggy Coke Zero 400 weekend at Daytona ended with Aric Almirola victorious after rain cut the race short with 48 laps to go. Later in the summer at the Glen, A.J. Allmendinger out-hustled Marcos Ambrose for the win in a frenetic finish.

Almirola’s triumph put Richard Petty Motorsports into the Chase and the fabled Petty No. 43 into Victory Lane for the first time since 1999. It was clear that being able to break such a long drought meant a lot to Almirola.

“In 2012 when I came here, Richard Petty Motorsports was on the rebound, if you will, and had been through some turmoil and came out of that…[Richard] wasn’t going to give up on it,” he said. “He was going to see it through and get the race team back to where it needed to be to be competitive.

“I was so grateful that they thought that I could be the guy that could contribute to that and could help get the 43 car back to where it needed to be – and to get the 43 car back to Victory Lane, more importantly.”

As for Allmendinger, his maiden Cup victory was also the first for his single-car JTG Daugherty Racing team.

Additionally, it was the end of a long road back for Allmendinger that began after he lost his ride with Team Penske following a failed drug test in 2012.

That road took him through part-time gigs in Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series, and the Verizon IndyCar Series before he signed for a full-time Cup return in 2014 with JTG Daugherty.

“I learn every day,” Allmendinger said after his win. “I try to get better every day. I’m sure they’ll attest to you, there’s certain days it’s not good [and] I’m still not where I want to be. There’s other days that I’m happy and I’m where I want to be.

“But I wouldn’t go back and change the process because I know I am a happier person and I am a more centered person, and I know I need to keep working to get better at that still. But I’m surrounded by family, and to be able to share it together, we’ll never forget this. I wouldn’t change anything about this.”

Almirola and Allmendinger would be among the first four eliminated in the Chase during the Challenger Round, with the latter coming just two points shy of advancing to the Contender Round.

But despite their early exits, the fact that they were both able to simply make the post-season has to be considered a special accomplishment for them and their respective teams.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”