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

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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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).