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NASCAR Cup Series

Allmendinger’s Back in a Full-Time Ride with JTG Daugherty

By Reid Spencer (HAMPTON, Ga.) –After 14 turbulent months, AJ Allmendinger finds himself where he never expected to be again–back in a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride.

The announcement came Saturday afternoon in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center. Allmendinger will drive the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing car in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series in 2014, the first year of a multiyear agreement.

Allmendinger will replace 2000 Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte, whose contract with the organization has not been renewed.

“In a way, I feel like I’m playing with house money,” said Allmendinger, who at this time last year was serving an indefinite suspension from NASCAR racing for a violation of the sanctioning body’s substance abuse policy.

“I didn’t think I’d be back here… I never thought I’d have this opportunity again, so it’s almost like starting over, but kind of being reborn and knowing that I have a real shot.”

Last July at Daytona, Allmendinger was informed he had failed a random drug test administered a week earlier at Kentucky Speedway. When a “B” sample test confirmed the positive test, team owner Roger Penske was forced to fire Allmendinger from the glamor ride he had earned just seventh months earlier.

After completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program and gaining reinstatement, Allmendinger drove James Finch’s Cup car late in the season, an opportunity Allmendinger considers critical in keeping his face and name in front of other potential owners.

Earlier this year, Penske offered Allmendinger the opportunity to drive for his IndyCar Series team. Allmendinger led 23 laps in the Indianapolis 500 in May and ultimately finished seventh after having to pit from the lead to have his belts tightened.

In two Nationwide Series starts in Penske’s No. 22 Nationwide car, at Road America and Mid-Ohio, Allmendinger won both times. JTG Daugherty asked him to drive the No. 47 car to benchmark the team’s progress with the new Gen-6 Cup car and the Electronic Fuel Injection system introduced last year.

Ultimately, those races blossomed into a full-time ride.

“Things just kind of kept falling into place, and I kind of said that I don’t feel like I ever deserved it,” Allmendinger said. “I didn’t deserve the second chance, but I worked really hard to get there. I felt like I was more ready than I’d ever been, that if any opportunity ever came up, I was more prepared mentally, physically and emotionally to get in there and give my full effort…

“It’s been a long journey over the last 12 months, but in a strange way, I’d never change it. As weird as that sounds, with the kind of the hell that I had to start going through initially, the place that I’m at now as a person–I feel so much better about it.”

Despite his status as a full-time Cup driver, Allmendinger won’t rule out a Charlotte/Indy double next May, as long as Penske is willing.

“You’d have to ask Roger on that,” Allmendinger said. “I can drive 1,100 miles on a Sunday–I’m good. If that opportunity’s there, I’m not going to say no.”

JTG Daugherty co-owner Tad Geschickter, ever mindful of who ultimately pays the bills, gave his enthusiastic endorsement of the plan.

“Absolutely,” Geschickter said. “Memorial Day’s the biggest charcoal holiday of the year. Let’s do PR everywhere.”

Kingsford Charcoal, of course, is one of the many brands that sponsor the No. 47 car.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Target and Ganassi Must be Patient with Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson may be the future of NASCAR but this isn’t quite his time.

There is little doubt in my mind that Larson will someday become a Sprint Cup Series superstar but I also agree with the sentiment that says he’s too young and equally inexperienced to immediately enjoy the success that has been expected of him.

That doesn’t mean his promotion to the No. 42 Sprint Cup team is premature. It just indicates that Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is going to have to take special care with Larson as he studies on the job next season.

When he starts the Daytona 500 in February, it will be just his 44th National Touring Series start after spending most of his career in open-wheel sprint cars and midgets. Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch are common comparisons and the potential is certainly there.

Gordon made his first Cup start at Atlanta in 1992 at 20-years-old after 62 Nationwide Series starts and Busch made his full-time debut in 2005 at 20 years-old after 47. So there’s certainly precedence for sending a driver this talented to Cup even if he’s not entirely prepared for it.

The key to making this experiment work will be patience.

Even if Larson somehow makes it to victory lane next season, it won’t be a sign that he’s is ready to handle the rigors and pressures of the Sprint Cup pressure cooker. Expectations must be kept in check and Ganassi seems to realize it too, ordering Larson another full Nationwide campaign next season.

Larson certainly has the confidence to handle the potential roadblocks. Even while taking questions from the media about his readiness, Larson was cool and unwavering, eager to prove that Ganassi made the right decision.

“I guess there’s a point when someone is not ready,” Larson said on Friday. “But I feel like I am ready. I feel like I can go out there and contend. I raced with some Cup guys in the Nationwide Series this year and learned a lot from them — beat some of them.

“I think I can do it. I think Chip obviously thinks I can do it, so that’s all that really matters.”

The confidence is important because Larson will have to maintain it over the course of his first full season in Sprint Cup. History has proven that the first season will always be a challenge. He’s going to have to learn some lessons and the key for Ganassi is keeping his young prospect focused and confident.

The No. 42 team provided the ideal scenario for Larson’s graduation because the team and sponsor have a 20-year relationship working alongside each other. If both parties establish realistic expectations and give Larson room to make mistakes and learn from them, the combination could be very dangerous in a short amount of time.

The Gordon example is again fitting.

The four-time champion struggled in 1993 and earned a reputation for abusing his equipment but started to center on his potential in 1994, where he won twice and cemented his place as a future mainstay.

The grace extended by Hendrick Motorsports allowed to him to break through in 1995 and saw the tandem win seven races, capturing their first championship together. While Larson isn’t expected to break through as quickly, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing could be headed to the promised land just like Hendrick was when Gordon championed their ascension.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose Set for RPM Return Next Season

By Matt Weaver — The paperwork hasn’t cleared yet but Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose both expect to be with Richard Petty Motorsports next season, the drivers told Popular Speed on Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“That’s the plan,” Almirola said. “We’re real close on finishing everything. The continuity of keeping everything the same and working with this team and (crew chief) Todd Parrott will be a huge advantage. All the guys on this team do a good job and they understand these cars and what it takes to make them go faster.

“We’re looking forward to building on that next year.”

When asked about his plans for next season, Ambrose simply took a sip of water and pointed down at his hauler and said ‘right here.’ During a season where drivers are changing seats at rapid-fire pace, both RPM pilots emphasized the importance for the team to establish some continuity from season-to-season.

“Aric’s a great driver,” Ambrose said of continuing his partnership with Almirola. “He’s a good friend of mine and we get along really well. He’s just a good teammate I know that he’s worked really hard to get where he — and he’s done it on talent too.

“He’s a real valuable part of the team and I enjoy working with him. It’s a good group and we want to keep it going.”

RPM has made great gains over the past three seasons since aligning itself with Ford and receiving technical support from Roush-Fenway Racing.

Ambrose has won twice at Watkins Glen in 2011 and 2012 and Almirola has improved his average finish from 20.0 to 18.4 in his two seasons working for Petty. Ambrose says the team needs to take another big step next season.

“We need to maintain this progression,” Ambrose said. “I feel like we only have a few more chances this year to learn in advance of next season but I’m really excited about the future. We’ve had time to restabalize and get some of the mojo back and I look forward to better things next year.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Drivers Hoping Their Chase Bubble Doesn’t Pop

By Matt Weaver — For the drivers currently sitting on the Chase bubble, the playoffs have already begun. The next two weekends at Atlanta and Richmond could define their seasons and every track session from here on out will have a tremendous amount of impact.

Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon are at the heart of the battle and run 11th-13th in the championship standings. More importantly, each one of them have gone winless through the first 24 races and must get to victory lane or get back in the top-10 to secure a Chase spot.

The top-10 drivers, plus two others with the most wins from 11th to 20th in the standings will earn a spot in the 10-race playoff system.

Contenders like Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth have already clinched a spot and have nothing to lose by going for wins. But those on the bubble, including current wild card holders Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman have to balance competitiveness and the risk of getting involved in an accident.

It’s a tough spot because one bad race can undo a month’s worth of work.

Busch has fought his way back into the top-10 but had a myriad of tire problems before finishing 31st on Saturday night at Bristol. That dropped him out of the top-10 to 12th and six points out of a Chase spot.

“The Chase for us started a few weeks back,” Busch said on Friday. “We’ve had to be perfect and run sixth and run third and run these top-5s against the stats every week. When we had a week like last week with the right-rear hub falling off while we are leading the race — those things are tough to overcome.”

Gordon can relate.

He fought his way back into a Chase spot after consecutive top-10s at Indianapolis and Pocono. But an accident and 36th place at Watkins Glen negated all of it.

He was out of the Chase picture until each of his rivals crashed on Saturday, leaving him satisfied with a seventh-place result. He’s now back to 13th and 11 points out but may have to do the rest of the work himself. And he has before, translating second-place finishes at Atlanta and Richmond last year to rally his way into the Chase.

And then there’s Keselowski, who just one year ago was setting the stage for his epic championship run. He’s also gone winless this season but understands that the momentum of just making the Chase could easily parlay into a championship run.

“If we come out guns ablaze these next two races, we’ll get that confidence real quick, and I think we are positioned to do that.”

Who makes the Chase may depend on a case of Musical Chairs as the three have rotated turns In the top-10 over the past two months and it all comes down to two races. Who will have a chair when the song stops playing? The next two weeks will decide.

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Editorial NASCAR Cup Series

Ten Topics Tony Will Talk About on Tuesday

By @TheOrangeCone – It’s great to know that Tony Stewart will address the media on Tuesday for the first time since his sprint car accident forced him into retirement. Now that he’s just a car owner, he are ten topics we can expect him to talk about when he holds his first post-retirement press conference:

10. How he and Gene Haas picked out carpet and upholstery patterns for their shared office at SHR headquarters.

9. His hatred for sprint car racing and how he hopes to never, ever see another sprint car again.

8. Since he now hates sprint car racing and sprint cars primarily race on dirt, he will announce the immediate paving of Eldora Speedway.

7. Now that he is retired, he will also explain a new softer approach to the media. He will not immediately threaten anyone with a crutch and will openly embrace Bob Pockrass in a show of his new pro-media attitude.

6. Tony will also open up about previous on-track run-ins with Kurt Busch and how they were all staged because he and Kurt set this move to SHR up long before Tony even met Gene Haas.

5. Tony will rate, in great detail, the tactile qualities of the behinds of each of the nurses that has taken care of him during his rehabilitiation.

4. Since he is retired, Tony will also offer the media and fans tips on which restaurants offer the best early bid specials, both in Columbus, Indiana and Charlotte, North Carolina.

3. In another show of his new softer approach to the media, he will apologize for calling Jim Utter “Princess” and will heretofore all him “Utter Butter.”

2. Tony will also detail which half of the team he owns and which half of the team Gene owns. Someone will suggest a line down the middle of the shop floor and Tony will lose it, threating to stick a crutch where the sun doesn’t shine.

1. He will call his wheelchair “dead weight” and say he cannot wait to lose it. Darian Grubb will text him immediately with a “haha that’s pretty funny” message.

I guarantee each and every one of these topics will be discussed. I also want to wish Tony much rest and relaxation in his retirement.

Okay, I have to get back to work. Pit entrance won’t police itself.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Larson Goes to Cup in Sophomore Year

Kyle Larson was officially unveiled as the next driver of the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Target Sprint Cup Chevrolet on Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Despite all the questions about his inexperience and preparation for the next level, Larson was cool and confident while handling the media and not willing to admit any hesitation as he prepares to make the jump to the faster and more competitive Sprint Cup cars.

“I’m real excited,” Larson said. “I’m sure there’ll be growing pains for sure, but I’ll grow as a driver and mature as a person.”

Larson believes Sprint Cup will be a better showcase of his talents more than the Nationwide or Trucks Series because of the increase in speed, with the 21-year-old saying that he’s used to “having too much horsepower.”

He added that he felt comfortable in the cockpit of a Cup car following a test a few months ago at Rockingham Speedway.

Larson will join the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Team next season with team owner Chip Ganassi calling his young prospect the future of the sport.

“He’s a unique talent and that was a racing decision,” Ganassi said. “We feel Kyle is the best short and longer term choice for (team sponsor) Target. Kyle was our first choice. We didn’t offer any deals to other drivers. We talked to a number of other drivers and at the end of the day, we felt Kyle Larson was the best option.”

Larson replaces Juan Pablo Montoya with the Target team after a seven-year tenure with the team. The former Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula 1 star has won two races at the Sprint Cup level, at Sonoma and Watkins Glen respectively.

Larson is currently competing in the Nationwide Series for Turner Scott Motorsports. He’s eighth in the standings with six top-5s and 13 top-10s after 26 races. Those numbers don’t entirely predict immediate success at the Sprint Cup level but at 21-years-old, Larson has time to grow.

Some of his future competitors made their Cup debut around the same age that Larson is now.

Kyle Busch was 19 when he made his first start while Jeff Gordon was 20 when he debuted at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992. So history would suggest that talent will eventually overcome inexperience and that’s what Ganassi is banking on.

“We’re sure there will be growing pains,” Ganassi said. “My expectations and advice to him will be keep the car on the track and run laps.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

SILLY SEASON: Seat Swapping has Reached Level of Insanity

By Amanda Ebersole – Silly season has just reached the leave of insanity.

If you have missed the news, here is what we know: Kurt Busch is the fourth driver to now round out the Stewart-Haas Racing stable. Joining teammates Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and previously announced Kevin Harvick, Busch’s addition to the team has many in the industry scratching their head. The questions are numerous: Why not keep Ryan Newman? How is Busch going to fit into the SHR dynamic? Who will be the first team member to have a meltdown and explode? While all those will be answered in due time, many other questions have developed about the state of other free agents for the 2014 season.

Perhaps the biggest shoe yet to drop is where Ryan Newman will head for 2014 and beyond. The rumor mill has him headed to Richard Childress Racing in a fourth entry for the team. That would have Newman joining Paul Menard, Jeff Burton and potentially Austin Dillon. Of the remaining seats that are left, RCR is the best fit for a driver of Newman’s pedigree

If Ryan Newman does indeed go to RCR, who does that leave for the No. 78 ride at Furniture Row Racing? As part of a technical alliance with Childress, why not put this as a shared ride between Austin Dillon and Mark Martin. Go with me on this idea – Dillon only has made 10 starts in the Cup series to date, Mark Martin is a driver that could really ease his transition into the elite series of racing. It would be a win/win for Furniture Row and RCR to get the experience of Mark Martin combined with the youth of Austin Dillon.

Now the next question is who gets the 42 ride over at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing? All signs are pointing to young gun Kyle Larson and that may be a huge risk for the team. The last driver to quickly rise through the NASCAR ranks was Joey Logano and we all see how long it has taken for him to finally get his footing. While I personally think it is rushing Larson, Chip Ganassi is a smart man and I am sure he counts on some rough days ahead.

What about the No. 47 JTG Daugherty car? For the team to make a statement, they need a driver that will invigorate their team. Of the free agents, there is only one driver that is glaringly obvious and that is AJ Allmendinger. Scoring the first top 10 of the season (Watkins Glen) for JTG Daugherty, Allmendinger’s road to redemption will be complete once he gets back in a car on a weekly basis. The latest news is that Allmendinger does indeed have an offer for this team but nothing has been signed as of yet.

With the Busch announcement and the pending Ganassi announcement the game of musical seats is winding down. If you aren’t in negotiations at this time, the song’s about over and there are many people fighting over the final few seats.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Labonte Sidelined with Broken Ribs

By Summer Bedgood – Bobby Labonte will not race this weekend in Atlanta Motor Speedway after sustaining three broken ribs in a cycling accident early Wednesday morning. Labonte was transported by ambulance to a local hospital near Trinity, N.C. and will be kept overnight for further observation.

Mike Bliss will drive the No. 51 Phoenix Racing entry this weekend while Labonte recovers from his injury. No information was given on whether or not Labonte would be out of the car beyond Atlanta.

Labonte has raced for both JTG Daugherty Racing and Phoenix Racing this season and has competed in 22 of the 24 Sprint Cup Series races. He has an average finish of 28.5 this season.

 

EMAIL SUMMER AT summer.bedgood@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @SummerBedgood

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NASCAR Cup Series

POWER RANKINGS: The Fast Fifteen

By Matt Weaver – The Bristol Night Race produced its standard excitement and another close finish as Matt Kenseth just barely clipped a hard-charging Kasey Kahne on the final lap in thunder valley.

A massive crash near the midway point also shook up the race to the chase and our weekly Fast 15 Power Rankings. The list, which includes a change at the top, can be found below:

1. Kasey Kahne (LW: 4)

He didn’t earn the Bristol sweep but Kasey Kahne did score a runner-up finish and eased back into eighth in the championship standings. Remaining in the top-10 and picking up another victory could cement his status as a marquee title chaser.

2. Jimmie Johnson (LW: 1)

Superman has been hit with a midseason bout of kryptonite. But like superhero stories of lore, Five-Time is likely to rebound in time for the finale (the Chase for the Championship).

3. Clint Bowyer (LW: 2)

The Michael Waltrip Racing ace got crashed while leading the Bristol Night Race — by a lapped car no less — and still finished 14th, locking himself into the Chase. He’s now looking to finish the job and score victories over the next two weeks at Atlanta and Richmond.

4. Matt Kenseth (LW: 11)

The 2003 champion broke his midseason slump right in time for the Chase for the Championship. Rival contenders beware. His Bristol victory could be the first of many over the next few weeks.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (LW: 13)

Bristol was the story of Earnhardt’s season thus far. The No. 88 team was fast enough, scored a top-10 and lead some laps. However, they were largely out of sight and out of mind for the finish.

6. Joey Logano (LW: 8)

Sliced Bread had a quiet top-five on Saturday at Bristol. He was there all night but wasn’t flashy about. But that’s perfectly fine when fighting for a Chase spot.

7. Greg Biffle (LW: 15)

Meh. A ninth-place at Bristol via survival was admirable but wasn’t enough to get him out of the Chase bubble conversation, only 19 points ahead of 10th-place with just one win.

8. Kyle Busch (LW: 10)

It was a mixed results weekend for Rowdy Busch. He won the Truck and Nationwide Series events, was fast inside his Sprint Cup car but crashed in qualifying.  This made him start dead last, crash again and still manage to finish in 11th. That response to adversity will serve him well once the playoffs begin.

9. Carl Edwards (LW: 3)

A silent contender for much of the afternoon, Carl Edwards suffered a mechanical issue on a mid-race restart and finished 39th. His playoff chances are secure so he’s searching for additional wins at this point.

10. Jeff Gordon (LW: NR)

Disappointed somewhat by a seventh-place finish on Saturday night, Jeff Gordon was still pleased to score a top-10 on a night where so many of his Chase bubble rivals struggled. He’s now just 11 points out of the top-10 with two races remaining.

11. Kurt Busch (LW: 6)

A series of disasters at Bristol (tire issues and a 31st place finish) was softened by the official announcement that he would be joining Stewart-Haas Racing next season. He still has to focus on making the Chase in 2013 where he is 13th in the standings.

12. Brad Keselowski (LW: 7)

A month’s worth of momentum was negated by just one bad race, dropping the defending Sprint Cup champion back outside of the top-10 in points.

13. Kevin Harvick (LW: 5)

On a night where it was hard to pass, The Closer just couldn’t make up ground at Bristol and crew chief Gil Martin was unable to find a strategy to get him much-needed track position. His day ended with a mid-race crash and he finished 34th.

14. Juan Pablo Montoya (LW: NR)

A podium finish at Bristol confirmed his worth at the Sprint Cup level as well as his talents as a wheelman to any potential suitors at IndyCar or the United SportsCar league too.

15. Sam Hornish (LW: 9)

A testy day at Bristol saw Sam Hornish finish 12th, causing his championship lead to decrease to six over Austin Dillon.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Allgaier, Scott and Brandt Go Cup Racing

By Staff – Harry Scott, Jr. has come to a definitive agreement with James Finch to purchase Phoenix Racing. Scott will formally take over control of the team as its owner on September 10, 2013 with Justin Allgaier behind the wheel of the #51 Chevy in time for the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“This is a very proud day for me as I will have the opportunity to compete against the best teams in motorsports in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series as the owner of Phoenix Racing,” said Scott. “I am going to build a championship contender with hard work, the right people and the right partners. This team has a great foundation thanks to the efforts of James Finch. There is a lot to build upon and I am looking forward to getting started.”

Scott’s role as a co-owner in Turner Scott Motorsports (TSM) is unchanged and he will continue to take an active role in that team on and off the track.

“I owe a lot of gratitude to Steve Turner for bringing me into the sport as an owner. My experience at TSM will continue to serve me well in this next step,” said Scott.

Driver Justin Allgaier is making the move with Scott from TSM to Phoenix Racing and will be the team’s driver in the #51 Chevy for its debut at Chicagoland Speedway on September 15 and two additional races this year. Allgaier, who is currently 5th in points in the NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS), will continue his pursuit of a championship in that series for TSM.

Scott has signed a deal with BRANDT to be the primary sponsor of the #51 for three NSCS races this season. BRANDT, which also sponsors Allgaier in the NNS for Turner Scott Motorsports, will be the primary sponsor of the #51 at Chicagoland, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. Allgaier will be the driver for each of those races. Scott has committed to keeping the Phoenix Racing team intact for the remainder of the season. Allgaier’s crew chief will be Nick Harrison. Harrison is a third year crew chief and has worked with several drivers including Kurt Busch, Landon Cassill and A.J. Allmendinger. Phoenix Racing’s general manager, Steve Barkdoll, will continue in his role after Scott takes over. The team will continue its relationships and alliances with Chevy, Hendrick Motorsports and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Scott is working with NASCAR for final approval.