AND . . . IS STEWART'S NASCAR TEAM REALLY HENDRICK'S?
BUT FIRST: REWARDING SUCCESS
Huge breaking news this afternoon for Canada's Formula One hope, Robert Wickens of Guelph and Toronto.
Wickens, the Marussia Virgin F1 team's reserve driver, will take part in the first Free Practice session of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next Friday morning as a reward for winning the 2011 World Series by Renault Formula Renault 3.5 Championship.
It's another step in the process of the 22-year-old's march to become the first Canadian to race in Formula One since Jacques Villeneuve.
Wickens's Renault campaign was sponsored by the Marussia car company, who decided that his success in securing the title was deserving of the opportunity to test theF1 car in a race weekend environment.
It's particularly good news for Wickens, because the man he defeated for the Formula 3.5 title, Jean-Eric Vergne, will be running the free practice in one of the Toro Rosso team cars and this puts them on an even footing, so far as showing their talent is concerned.
Of course, the Toro Rosso is a better car than the Marussia Virgin entry, but Vergne's performance will be measured against regular driver Sebastian Buemi's and Wickens's will be held up for comparison to regular Virgin driver Jérôme D’Ambrosio, so although they'll be on track together, the competition will be within their individual teams.
Wickens has been in the Virgin F1 car before. He took part in a straight-line test in September in Vairano, Italy, where he helped the team gather data for its aerodynamic evaluation program. His role next Friday will be to provide a continuation of this experience but in the more critical context of a Grand Prix, where his feedback will have a direct benefit on the team’s race weekend performance.
Wickens will run in car No. 25 alongside Timo Glock and in place of D’Ambrosio. It will be business as usual in the afternoon with D'Ambrosio back in the cockpit.
Said John Booth, team principal of Marussia Virgin Racing: “Robert has had a fantastic season in Formula Renault 3.5 and was the deserving victor of a hard-fought championship. One of the founding principles of our Young Driver Program was that we would reward success with important seat time to aid the progression of our rising stars through the ranks."
Said Wickens: “I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity to test with the team in a race weekend context and at a track like Abu Dhabi. This year just keeps getting better and better and I can’t thank Marussia enough for their continued support.
"The Vairano test was a good grounding for me but the opportunity to kick things up a gear in a free practice session is obviously the next big step in my career and I hope my feedback will have a positive benefit on the team’s performance there.”
Now, heading into this weekend’s Sprint Cup race at Fort Worth, Tony Stewart is only eight points behind leader Carl Edwards in the Chase for the Championship and really seems to have the bit in his teeth. Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth are running third through fifth in the Chase and all could end up winning it and the last three races promise to be really exciting.
But I have a question: how much of Stewart’s success is because of his Stewart-Haas Racing team and how much of it belongs to Rick Hendrick?
Stewart-Haas has a “working” relationship with Hendrick. Tony gets his cars and his engines from Hendrick and actually works with Hendrick’s organization on race setup for his car and Ryan Newman’s. Of course, he and Newman then race the cars and have pit crews to change tires and gas up the car during pit stops but – for all intents and purposes – this sure seems to be pretty much a Hendrick team.
Of course, it couldn’t be. NASCAR has a limit on the number of cars each team can enter in races — four — and Hendrick is full up with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Jr.
But Stewart doesn’t hold a lot back when talking about the partnership. In an interview with Dave Rodman of NASCAR.com, he said this:
"I don't think that there's anything that they (Hendrick) are holding back from us that we could ask for, to be honest. We work very closely with them every week with the setups. Our engines — I have the ability, and Ryan does, too — if we feel like we aren't getting a good enough engine, we can sit there and look at all six dyno sheets for our engines and handpick the one we want if we so desire.
"I have confidence that our relationship with Rick and his whole group is very solid and that we are getting everything that we need from them. It's just our job to execute it and finish it out on the weekend."
Three of Hendrick’s drivers are in the Chase (Martin’s the only one out) but none are currently in the top five. There have been suggestions, as a result, that Stewart-Haas has been receiving A-list equipment of late in an effort by Hendrick to do all he can to help this “satellite” team win the championship.
Speaking of Rick Hendrick, his injuries as a result of that plane accident he was in earlier this week were more serious than first thought and he’s in hospital in Charlotte where doctors feel they can manage his pain better. He wasn’t badly hurt but broken ribs can really hurt and he suffered four of them
As I am one of the few people alive who actually watched the Toronto Maple Leafs win their last Stanley Cup (quick now: what year?) I have a most difficult choice to make about what to watch on Saturday night because I am also a huge fan of the sport of auto racing.
So, should I watch the Amazin’ Leafs? At time of writing, they are tied for first place overall in the National Hockey League (when was the last time that happened? 1902?) and they will be playing the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins at the ACC.
Or should I watch the season finale of the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series, live and in colour, on Speed Channel? Although Jason Meyers has already won the championship, the World Finals being held on the dirt track at Charlotte Motor Speedway will still be frantic, with bench-racing boasting and serious money on the line.
I think I have a solution: the hockey game will start at or about 7:10 p.m. Eastern. I can watch the first period and at least part of Coach’s Corner before the sprint car races start at 8 p.m. on Speed.
By the way, the guy starting on pole Friday night at Charlotte (no TV but Friday time trials are always a harbinger of things to come) is none other than the driver who won the Canadian Sprint Car Nationals at Ohsweken Speedway a little while ago, Sam Hafertepe Jr. of Sunnyvale, Tex.
“Having a good car tonight (Thursday) means a lot and also means we will probably have a good car for the rest of the weekend,” said Hafertepe, whose crew chief is a Canadian, Daryl Turford of Brampton.
Steve Kinser, Donny Schatz, Joey Saldana and Craig Dollansky are other Outlaws regulars who will be at Charlotte.
I’m getting worked up just writing about it.
More than $200,000 has been raised by that Graham Rahal-promoted online auction to help the widow and two young boys of Dan Wheldon.
Many “big-ticket” items have yet to come up for bidding, including the last race-worn helmet in the possession of Graham’s father, Bobby Rahal. Memorabilia from other Indy drivers, NASCAR and F1 stars is all on the block.
To participate, go to the auction site.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Texas, Friday, 8 p.m., Speed Channel
NASCAR Nationwide Series, Texas, Saturday, noon pre-race, 1 p.m. green, TSN2 (Danica Patrick will pay special tribute to Dan Wheldon in this race.)
World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, Charlotte, Saturday, 8 p.m., Speed Channel
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Texas, Sunday, 2 p.m. pre-race, 3 p.m. green, TSN