Getty Images

After one-year absence, A.J. Allmendinger back for 12th career Rolex 24

Leave a comment

A.J. Allmendinger will take part in his 12th edition of the Rolex 24 this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

But in a way, Allmendinger feels almost like a rookie in his first time taking part in one of the world’s highest-profile endurance races.

“It’s going to be different,” Allmendinger said during Tuesday’s NASCAR Media Day in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’ve always run the Prototype class and Shank’s (Michael Shank Racing) first year last year with the GTD class and the Acura NSX’s.

“They’ve really built a lot of speed. They won two races last year so the car’s got a lot of speed in it. But it’s a different way of racing, you know? Being a Prototype, you’re the aggressor. You’re the one making the moves.

“With the GT cars there’s a challenge to allowing cars to get around you and not losing a lot of time and that’s where the best GT drivers are so good at it. I got only about 30 laps probably at the Roar (the Roar Before the Rolex 24 three weeks ago, also at Daytona).

“ABS (system) brakes is way different than anything I’ve ever driven. It took me a while to learn. And I can’t say I’ve really got a full understanding of it yet but I love that race. I love working with Mike Shank and that whole team.”

Allmendinger is the only full-time NASCAR Cup driver taking part in this year’s Rolex 24, along with Xfinity Series part-time drivers Austin Cindric and Justin Marks.

Allmendinger likes the idea of competing with some of the world’s best drivers across various disciplines of racing.

Among big names in this year’s race: two-time F1 champ Fernando Alonso, Team Penske drivers Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, as well as fellow IndyCar drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay, Spencer Pigot and Graham Rahal.

Allmendinger, who turned 36 on December 16, knows that one day he’ll race in his final Rolex 24, much like veteran Scott Pruett is doing in this weekend’s race, bringing an illustrious three-plus decade career to an end.

“At some point, I’m sure I’m going to have to give this up,” Allmendinger said. “I would love to (win again). I love what IMSA is doing. There’s going to be 20 brand new Prototypes, there’s 21 or 22 cars in the Prototype class, which is bigger than any other Prototype class in the world.

“The GT class and our class, there’s 21 or 22 cars as well. It’s such a competitive field; I think the top 15 at the test were separated by 7 or 8 tenths. What they’re doing is great. There’s so many different manufacturers in there now. And I would love to do it, for sure.”

As for Pruett’s final race, Allmendinger is highly complimentary and respectful of Pruett and his career.

“What Scott Pruett has done for the sport of just auto racing, not NASCAR or IMSA or anything like that, it’s what he’s done in general for the world of racing has been pretty special, he’s done it all,” Allmendinger said. “He’s raced everything (including) IndyCar, he’s run sports cars, he’s run NASCAR, and he’s been fast in everything that he’s done.

“More importantly, he’s always been such a great promoter of the sport and great to go talk to if you needed to ask questions. (He’s a) hard competitor. To see him go out on his own terms and to go out with the biggest race in their sport, I think we’d all like to be able to do that.”

Allmendinger will drive the Michael Shank Racing No. 86 Acura in the Rolex 24, teaming with Katherine Legge, Alvaro Parente and Trent Hindman.

And that’s where the rookie feeling comes in: In his previous 11 Rolex 24 starts, Allmendinger has competed behind the wheel of a Prototype. This year is different: it’s his first time piloting a ride in the GTD class.

Allmendinger has been part of the Shank team for every year since 2006. That includes winning the 2012 race, was third in 2013 and earned the pole in 2015.

But because Shank switched to Honda last season to be part of Acura’s factory program in the GTD class, Allmendinger was forced to watch from the sidelines to make room for several Honda drivers from other motorsports series.

But Allmendinger won’t be sidelined in 2018. He’s right back in the thick of things and intends on doing his best to win the 24 yet again.

“It’s definitely nice to be back again, for sure,” Allmendinger said.

And it would definitely be nice to be back again in victory lane, for sure, as well.

Could Scott Dixon someday break Foyt, Andretti wins and championships records?

IndyCar
1 Comment

With five races left in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Scott Dixon is in the driver’s seat to potentially earn a fifth career IndyCar championship.

After winning Sunday at Toronto, Dixon now has a 62-point edge over second-ranked and defending series champ Josef Newgarden and a 70-point lead over third-ranked Alexander Rossi.

The triumph north of the border was Dixon’s third there, as well as his 44th career IndyCar win, third-highest in IndyCar annals.

Add in the four IndyCar championships and those are stellar numbers indeed.

What makes things all the more amazing is Dixon has done all that in under 18 full seasons on the IndyCar circuit. Heck, he’s only 37 years old, too (although he turns 38 on July 22).

Dixon’s championships have come in 2003 (his first full season in IndyCar after two prior seasons in CART/Champ Car), 2008, 2013 and most recently in 2015.

The quiet, unassuming New Zealander has been one of the most successful drivers ever not just in IndyCar, but in all forms of motorsports.

When his name is mentioned, it’s typically included with the only two drivers who have more career wins than he does: A.J. Foyt (67 wins and seven championships, both records) and Mario Andretti (52 wins and four titles).

That’s a pretty lofty pair to be part of.

One might think that after all the success he’s had, Dixon could easily walk away from IndyCar and Chip Ganassi Racing and enjoy an early retirement.

But competing in and winning races isn’t really a job for Dixon. He enjoys what he’s doing so much that he easily could keep doing what he’s doing – and at a high level – for another seven or more years, at least.

So, can Dixon catch Mario and A.J.? The former would be easier than the latter, for sure.

Numerically, it’s possible – at least part of it:

* Dixon can easily be competitive into his mid-40s.

* He’s averaged three-plus wins every season since 2007 (37 wins from then through Sunday). That means if he can keep that average going, he could reach 24 more wins – to overtake Foyt – by 2026. Yes, that may be a stretch to even imagine, but if there’s any current driver who potentially could overtake Foyt, it’s Dixon.

* Dixon already has three wins this season, and with five more races still to go, he could easily win another one, two or maybe even three more in 2018 as he continues his road to the championship. And let’s not forget that with each additional win, that’s one win closer to overtaking Andretti and Foyt.

In his usual modest and humble manner, Dixon downplays not just talk comparing him with Andretti and Foyt, but also overtaking one or both.

“I think A.J. is pretty safe,” he said. “He’s a long ways ahead. … Eight (championships) is an infinity away. Takes a long time to get eight.”

But that doesn’t mean Dixon can’t keep working at approaching Foyt’s mark.

“I think for us, we take it race by race,” he said. “We’re in the business of winning races. If we’re not doing that, I won’t have a job for too long. That’s the focus for right now.”

If he wins the championship this year, he’ll pass Andretti’s championship mark. That would be one record down, three to go.

And if he can win nine more races over the next few seasons, he’ll pass Andretti’s 52 career wins, making it two records down and two more to go.

“Right now with 44 wins, next on the list is Mario I think at 52 or something,” Dixon said after Sunday’s win. “We’ll see how it goes. Right now, we’re just trying to get the job done for the team.”

And he’s doing a darn good job at that indeed – with likely even more success still to come.

Follow @JerryBonkowski