Norris on NASCAR, Monaco & Danica

  • Detail of an automatic gear shifter in a new, modern car. Modern car interior with close-up of automatic transmission and cockpit background

Saturday evening update:

Brad Keselowski won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Charlotte, with Denny Hamlin second and Kyle Busch third. Kevin Harvick finished fourth and Elliott Sadler arrived home fifth.

Danica Patrick, everybody’s favourite punching bag, qualified third (must have been a fluke) and finished 13th.

Unless my math is wrong, that means she finished ahead of 30 other drivers who were in the race – but she was just lucky, I guess.

All of her critics can drive better than her, of course. I mean, the guy who argued against me in the Wheels Smackdown this week contends that if she hadn’t taken her clothes off to get to where she is today that she’d be lucky to land a ride at a local dirt track.

(By the way, the top woman jockey in North America, a Canadian, is naked in the current issue of Vanity Fair. I have never seen Danica Patrick naked. But I digress.)

According to the Nationwide standings, she’s in ninth place. In the seven years she drove in IndyCar, she finished in the top ten in points six times, had a career high finish of fourth in points and finished second in races twice. Her first time at Indy, she set the fastest time all month and came about as close as Hinchcliffe did to winning the pole.

But I guess I’m the one who’s delusional, thinking she’s got talent.

Of much more interest, however, is the continuing rumour that Michael Andretti will enter a team in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series and will partner with Dodge.  Neither Andretti nor Dodge will deny that talks have been going on, according to various Internet sites.

Some of the reports even include the names of potential drivers, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch being prominent.

First, I suggest it will happen. Why not? Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are Indy car owners who run teams in NASCAR so why not Andretti?

Second, Michael Andretti in recent years has branched out to become involved in not only Indy car racing but sports promotion generally. 

He was partners with Kevin Savoree and Kim Green when Andretti-Green Promotions rescued the Honda Indy Toronto from oblivion. Although that company doesn’t exist any more, Andretti operates a sports marketing subsidiary of Andretti Autosport that is promoting races this season in Milwaukee and Baltimore.

Third, here is the clincher.

I have a friend who was prominent in Indy car racing public relations going back years. This person was offered employment by Andretti Autosport before this season began but then the offer was suddenly withdrawn, with no explanation.

Only afterward did my friend find out that Andretti had decided to hire, instead, someone with extensive experience in NASCAR. Jade Gurss, who is head of corporate communications for Andretti, started the original NASCAR truth-and-rumours-for-insiders blog back in 2004 and recently published a book on Dale Earnhardt Jr.

If you’re considering a foray into NASCAR, it’s probably better to have someone experienced in that sport than not and explains, for me anyway, why my friend got screwed in favour of someone from Down South.

So count on Andretti Autosport going to NASCAR.

And the driver? Ryan Newman will never leave Tony Stewart’s team so long as Stewart is in charge there. They’re a couple of short track guys at heart and birds of a feather stick together.

But if you’re looking for a shoe who’s done a good job for Dodge in the past, look no further than Kurt Busch, who happens to be available. The fact that, emotionally, he’s still 6 shouldn’t deter a potential employer from at least considering him.

Earlier Saturday:

Michael Schumacher won the pole for the Grand Prix of Monaco in his Mercedes Saturday but will have to start sixth in the classic on Sunday because of a penalty levied against him at the last F1 race in Spain.

So Mark Webber, who finished second in time trials for Red Bull-Renault, will go off first, with Nico Rosberg, who qualified third for Mercedes, starting second.

Confused yet?

And Pastor Maldonado (Williams), who qualified ninth, will drop back to 19th because of a 10-grid-position penalty he incurred after the last practice session for exhibiting anti-social behaviour of the type usually found in kindergarten playgrounds.

He retaliated against something Sergia Perez (Sauber) apparently did – both cars were damaged as a result of the incident – and it distressed everyone from the stewards, to team owner Sir Frank Williams, to the TV announce team no end.

“Pole position at Monaco, Michael; congratulations,” Mercedes’ Ross Brawn said over the team radio, moments after the 43-year-old Schumacher – who first won a pole at the storied circuit in 1994 when he was a child in his 20s – crossed the line in first with a time of one minute, 14.301 seconds.

So. the lineup tomorrow:

Webber (1:14:381); Nico Rosberg (Mercedes-1:14:448); Lewis Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes-1:14:583); Romain Grosjean (Lotus-Renault-1:14:639); Fernando Alonso (Ferrari-1:14:948); Schumacher; Felipe Massa (Ferrari-1:15:049); Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus-Renault-1:15:199); Sebastien Vettel (Red Bull-Renault-no time, as he didn’t go out in Q3) and Nico Hulkenburg (Force India-1:15:421, who was moved up from his 11th position after Maldonado was banished to the back).

Jenson Button of McLaren-Mercedes was the only one of the big names to not make it into the final, pole-qualifying session. The best he could turn was a lap of 1:15:536, which was only good for 13th fastest.

This was Schumacher’s 69th pole. The last time a driver over 40 won a pole in a Grand Prix was Nigel Mansell in 1994.

The day was gorgeous with hardly a clould in the sky, which makes you wonder about all the empty seats for qualifying. If you can afford to purchase a grandstand seat for the Grand Prix of Monaco, why in the world would you not use it? I mean, they are not cheap.

Talking about currency, the announcers – David Coulthard, Eddie Jordan – were wondering why Sir Frank would allow Maldonado to go out for final qualifying after what he’d done. “He’ll give him a good talking to later,” said Jordan.

First, I don’t think Frank Williams will say anything. And Pastor Maldonado does what he wants with that team. He ponied up in the vicinity of $46 million of Venezuelan government money for that seat, which means he drives when he wants to drive or else Hugo Chavez will be on the phone to somebody.

And the bottom line is, without that $46 million, Williams F1 isn’t in business.

Two quick bits of short track news: Jarrett Andretti, son of CART and NASCAR star John Andretti and nephew of Mario Andretti, will race full-time in the supermodified division at New York’s Oswego Speedway this season, starting June 2. He’ll pilot a rocket prepared by Jim Paternoster and Shawn Muldoon as well as continuing to race sprint cars and midgets in the midwest. This was the route his father took to the big time and is most unlike other youngsters who tend to concentrate on road-racing ladders. . . And David Ostella of Maple, after a best-ever qualifying effort in Indy Lights, crashed out of Friday’s Freedom 100 at Indianapolis when he was caught up in a five-car pileup. He wasn’t hurt physically, but his feelings sure were. He’d gone off fifth, which is pretty good in that company.

Just a quick thought:

Everybody in IndyCar talked about the need to get away from “pack racing” after the accident last October at Las Vegas that killed Dan Wheldon. As a result, the series has refused to return to Vegas and, with the exception of Texas Motor Speedway, won’t race on 1.5-mile tracks or tracks that are highly banked for that reason.

Indianapolis is the first oval the series has run on since that accident and there are new cars. Don’t be surprised to see pack racing on Sunday. I don’t think you can get away from it, regardless of where you go to race or what you do to discourage it from happening.

Meantime, Joey Saldana won the first race of the weekend Friday night at the Dirt Track at Charlotte, the World of Outlaws Showdown.  He started fourth in the 30-lap sprint car feature and was pretty much in control once he got the lead.

Sprint Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne started the feature and, although both showed flashes of brilliance, weren’t really factors.

Sprint car legends Sammy Swindell and Steve (King) Kinser made things interesting for awhile but suspension problems killed Swindell’s race and a flat tire did in Kinser.

Saldana, a second-generation sprint car star (his dad, “Little Joe” Saldana, was a USAC sprint car racer in the Seventies who also drove in the Indy 500), won his third Outlaws feature of the season.

The Outlaws tour includes a stop at the Brantford-area Ohsweken Speedway at the end of July. Tony Stewart will be back to defend his race win of a year ago.

Meantime, across the street at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Aric Almirola won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 that will be held Sunday evening. Marcos Ambrose will start beside him on the front row. Danica Patrick will start her third Sprint Cup race of the season from the 40th position.

It was blistering hot in Charlotte Friday and forecasts in central Indiana are calling for an extremely hot day Sunday for the Indianapolis 500.

Speedway officials are telling the expected 200,000-plus spectators to wear hats, drink lots of fluids and use a lot of sunscreen. I predict if it’s that hot that many (if not most) of them will go home.

There have been Indy 500s held previously when the temperature was in the 90s (Fahrenheit, of course)  but that was years and years ago.  Entertainment options weren’t as many or as varied as now, so people toughed it out. They’d paid their money and they wanted the show and if it was hot, so what?

Nowadays, creature comforts are paramount, so people won’t hang around if it’s stifling.

I feel sorry for the drivers; they can’t go anywhere. They’re strapped in their rockets from start to finish and they’ll be wearing three-layer firesuits and underwear, gloves and balaclavas and I guarantee you it will be hot, hot, hot for them.

Let’s hope the teams keep a close eye and pull their driver, or drivers, out of the race if anything seems amiss. In 1953, driver Carl Scarborough died after being overcome by the heat.

The only Canadian to win the Indianapolis 500 – officially – was Jacques Villeneuve in 1995. I say “officially,” because many people think Paul Tracy won in 2002 but the Indy Racing League ruled the yellow light had come on for a crash before Tracy completed passing Helio Castroneves.

James Hinchcliffe could win on Sunday. He’s been fast all month, he qualified second (missing the pole by a blink) and he’s got a good team behind him.

“Hinch” talked to the media earlier this week. Here is a partial transcript of that conversation:

MODERATOR: Talk about this Sunday’s race. It’s been a rain-free month of May. You’ve had plenty of opportunity to be on the course in the IZOD IndyCar Series car. What kind of race do you expect on Sunday?

HINCHCLIFFE: It’s a race of unknowns. This is the first time anybody will run this car for a full race distance on an oval. With the heat we’re expecting on Sunday, that throws a question mark into the mix. We just don’t know how this car is going to race.

As much as we try to run around in packs in practice, when you have all 33 cars on track running flat out and racing properly, it’s a very different game than what you see during practice.

You’re going to have to be flexible on your strategy, you’re going to have to adjust the car at pit stops and inside the cockpit, stay ahead of the changing conditions. That’s sort of the nature of this race just because of how long it is.

MODERATOR: The last Canadian to win the Indianapolis 500, the only one actually, was Jacques Villeneuve who ironically drove the No. 27 car to the win. What would it mean for you to bring home a win in Indianapolis?

HINCHCLIFFE: I mean, it’s beyond words. That’s a tough thing to describe. But obviously this is the biggest race of our calendar. This is the one that everybody wants to win.

MODERATOR: Let’s open it up for questions for James Hinchcliffe.

Q. It strikes me that Chevy seems to have a fuel mileage advantage. This is obviously a fuel mileage race. Talk a little bit about that. Is that going to play into your favor? Does that affect the way the strategy is going to work on Sunday?

HINCHCLIFFE: It’s tough to say because we haven’t really seen what people’s fuel mileage is yet at this track. Certainly there was proof that we had the upper hand in that area over the first few races on road and street courses. The way the engines operate, the power level we’re at, there’s a lot of different elements involved here at Indianapolis.

That’s not going to be something we can really assess until the race starts.

I think that goes into what I said early about having to be flexible. We’re going to be learning a lot about what each car and each team has in their back pocket as the race unfolds.

Q. When you’re sitting in the middle of the front row looking down that straightaway, do you have any idea what is going to be going through your mind or do you have time to think?

 HINCHCLIFFE: I’m going to be looking left and thinking, ‘Damn, I wish I was there (on the pole).’

Q. You’re on the front row of the grid for the biggest race of the season. From a mindset standpoint, do you feel any more pressure here or are you able to handle it as you would any other race on the calendar?

HINCHCLIFFE: I think honestly that’s one of the big tricks of Indianapolis, is you really have to try to treat it like any other race. Because at the end of the day, this is not only the biggest race on our schedule, it’s the biggest race in the world. As soon as you start thinking about that and appreciating that fact before you get in the race car, I think it really puts your head in a different place. That’s not necessarily the place you want to be.

It’s not the way I want to approach my race on Sunday. I want to get on with the job we’ve been doing as a team and try to continue that momentum.

A big element of it, yeah, is to try to push that as far out of your mind as possible.

Q. James, the qualifying procedure. Under the old method in the month of May, you would be sitting on pole today. Do you think there needs to be any tweaks to the qualifying procedure?

HINCHCLIFFE: Racing drivers love thinking that we go racing for us. We don’t. I think the format we have now is incredibly exciting. If it had been the old format, pole would have been set at 2 in the afternoon and everybody would have sat around and nobody would have been able to challenge.

As it was, we had a thrilling duel for the pole that came down to the closest margin in history. It would have been tragic to rob fans of that show. I come out on the lesser end of that, which is still second place.

I quite like the shootout format, the fact we have multiple runs at it. I think it adds a new element of excitement to it. At the end of the day we’re here to put on a show.

Q. You, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti seem to follow in a team of drivers that have great chemistry together. What do you think is the key to y’all having the unity you have?

HINCHCLIFFE: Well, honestly the first conversation I ever had with Michael and everybody at Andretti Autosport, their whole key to building a good race team is starting with good drivers that have good chemistry. It’s something they’ve achieved in the past and something that they feel was maybe missing a little bit the last few seasons.

When they first called me, they really wanted to get to know me a little bit better and see if I would fit in well. You could have the best driving credentials in the world or you could be backed by the biggest sponsor on the planet. If you’re not going to be able to work well with the people on the team, it really is all for nothing.

I’ve always said racing is not about engines, tires, race cars, it’s about people, and the right group of people will be successful, period.

I think in Marco, Ryan and myself, you have three drivers who are young, hungry, very motivated to put in the effort, to work as hard as possible to get this team back up to championship contenders.

The personalities are close enough off track. We’re all good friends. I think that allows us to work so much better together as a group. We push each other so hard. When you’re in a situation like that, it’s hard to not see success because all the right elements are there for it to happen.

I don’t think there’s one specific thing that you can point out that leads to that chemistry working the way it does. It really is the combination of all the people on the team, all the drivers working together, and like I said, all of us pushing together to improve week in and week out.

Q. I was wondering how you feel with regards to your car package this year compared to last year and how much more you feel there is to come from both yourself as a driver and also in terms of the car during the rest of the season.

 HINCHCLIFFE: Well, certainly, I mean, it’s a strong package. The car, when we first got it, it actually didn’t really suit me. It wasn’t my favorite thing to drive. Between the work that Dallara has done, obviously a lot of work from the team, a tremendous amount of work from Chevrolet, as well, now I and everybody at Andretti Autosports has a competitive package. The car is much more suited me than it was when we first got out there.

Again, it’s a huge testament to all the hard work of everybody back at the shop.

We’ll have to see sort of how this race unfolds. I mean, I didn’t have a ton of experience in the old car. But certainly the situation that I’m in in general, just with the car and the team and everybody, is a big step forward from last year.

The experience plays into a part of that. Again, just the infrastructure at Andretti Autosport, the resources they have, it’s a tremendous position to be in. I think there’s definitely more confidence in the experience and the atmosphere that we’ve got. Hopefully this just translates to get results for the rest of the year.

Q. James, it seems almost the highlight of your year is the red gloves (that were worn by the late Canadian driver, Greg Moore). Can you talk about that a little bit. We know how it happened. Yourself personally, how do you feel about that, being able to do that? Any plans for them to be in your car for the race?

HINCHCLIFFE: It was a very emotional thing for me, because Greg’s my hero. More than anything, to have been approached by somebody who knew him very well and was very good friends with him and his family to do that, it was beyond an honor. To have even been considered worthy of being able to take his gloves around for a couple laps at the Speedway was a very, very touching thing. I’m incredibly grateful I got to do that.

Yeah, it’s just one of the coolest things I’ve had the chance to do. That will be a hard thing to top. It’s certainly something I’ll remember for a long time.

In terms of where the gloves go for now, I think they did their job in qualifying. He helped me get a good run and a starting spot. We’ll leave it at that. We’ll leave the record intact. He’s had his qualifying runs now. He’s in the race as far as I’m concerned. I think that’s a good place to leave it.

Q. You mentioned this is your second time around at Indy, how you’ve learned from last year what to expect, how things work. What is race morning for you like at Indy and how do you go about preparing for a race like that? Do you ever get a moment to kind of stop and appreciate what it is you’re doing?

HINCHCLIFFE: Well, you know, in terms of preparation on race morning, the team’s very good that we have no commitments that aren’t racing related on Sunday. There’s no quick sponsor appearances, no meet-and-greets, things like that. They let you get to business.

As I said before, it’s a function of trying to treat it like any other race weekend. You go, you’ll talk to the engineers, your teammates. Me being me, I try and keep it as light as possible. Still tell jokes, hang out with the family a little bit before the start of the race like I would anywhere else.

Yeah, it’s very easy to get lost in the moment. And I think one of the few moments that we get to sort of appreciate where we are and what we’re doing is driver introductions when you walk up over the wall and see the stands completely full for the first time all month.

You’re here all month, and you see them, and there’s some people in them some days, Pole Day there’s some people, but there’s nothing like race day. Almost to the same extent, once we get strapped in the cars, do the warmup laps, three by three, which you don’t do anywhere else, you really appreciate you’re at Indy.

You go on the whole track and you see these formerly gray, barren grandstands seething with life, color and movement. It’s a very surreal experience. It gives this track a feeling that it’s alive and you’re right in the heart of it.

You’re by yourself at that point. All the press is done. There’s nothing else you can do but get on and drive. You just take that moment and enjoy it.

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