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Driver Alex Tagliani reacts after taking the pole position for NAPA Auto Parts 200 Nationwide Series NASCAR race in Montreal, August 17, 2012. (Olivier Jean/Reuters)
Driver Alex Tagliani reacts after taking the pole position for NAPA Auto Parts 200 Nationwide Series NASCAR race in Montreal, August 17, 2012. (Olivier Jean/Reuters)

Motorsports

Engine switch pays off for Tagliani Add to ...

Things are looking up for Canadian Alex Tagliani.

After beginning the year with three finishes of 15th or worse using an uncompetitive Lotus engine, it looked like the Lachenaie, Que., native would have a season to forget with his new Bryan Herta Autosport team. The engine was off the pace and unreliable, making any chance of a good result virtually impossible.

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Things were so bad that the team sat out the fourth race of the year in Brazil rather than race with the Lotus; however, it also worked behind the scenes to entice either Chevrolet or Honda supply it with engines. The gamble paid off when Honda agreed to take Herta as a customer, starting with the Indianapolis 500, and the change in Tagliani’s performance since the new engine was bolted into the back of his car has been nothing short of remarkable.

“The first four races for us were a disaster, and they hurt our championship points but, I mean, it was a decision for the long-term, for the future,” Tagliani said.

“I think the team did right. Honda came back with us and everybody seems to be super excited and happy for the future. So, thumbs up to everybody that decided to make the change. It was a pretty difficult thing to do and come up with financially, manpower, everything was pretty hard. We did it and it paid off.”

Since Honda came on board, Tagliani’s No. 98 Barracuda Networks-sponsored car took a pole at Texas and has scored seven top-10 results in 11 starts. He has also gone through to the final “Fast 6” session in qualifying at four of the past five road and street courses, where a knockout format was used. That same system will be in place at Baltimore for qualifying on Saturday.

He’ll be looking to keep his string going this weekend at the Baltimore Grand Prix, where he took seventh in last year’s inaugural event.

Tagliani may also want to watch his mirrors for Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay after the pair clashed in Sonoma last weekend. The Herta driver locked his brakes trying to pass Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti and ran into Hunter-Reay, who was running third at the time. Hunter-Reay spun and ended up crossing the line 18th, a result that dropped him 36 points behind leader Will Power of Penske with two races to go.

Although Tagliani apologized, Hunter-Reay said this week he’s still livid about the incident.

While circumstances took Tagliani out of the championship hunt long ago, he still needs to keep delivering top results to ensure his Herta outfit rakes in some extra cash from IndyCar for the 2013 season.

“We have our own little championship going on,” he said.

“We need to be in the Leaders Circle for next year, so it’s very important that we grab as many points as possible.”

The Leaders Circle is an IndyCar program that doles out bonuses to the top-20 full-time teams from the previous year. It is thought to be worth about $1.1-million (U.S.) per team, including a $20,000 bonus for qualifying for the Indy 500.

Although it was the defending Indianapolis 500 winning team, Bryan Herta Autosport became a full-time outfit in 2012 and was not one of the new teams chosen to be part of the Leaders Circle this year.

With two races left, Tagliani lies 17th in IndyCar standings with 236 points, despite missing the race on the streets of Sao Paulo. Amazingly, he is only 50 points out of the top 10, although gaining that amount in the final two races might be a tall order. Drivers get 50 points for a win, but the minimum amount scored in a race is 10, which is awarded to all finishers in 25th place and below.

On the other hand, with only 34 points separating 17th from 21st place, a couple of poor results combined with some luck for his pursuers could see Tagliani pushed out of a precious top-20 spot.

While he’s already negotiating his contract with Herta for 2013, Tagliani has also been dabbling in NASCAR for the past few years, running most recently in the Nationwide series race earlier this month at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Tagliani started on pole for the NAPA 200 and looked to be a threat to win until he was spun out of the lead late in the race by 1997 Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve. He ended the day 22nd in what can only be called an extremely used car.

NASCAR has been a fun experience for Tagliani, but he isn’t about to make the switch to stock car racing yet, although he mused that it might be a long-term project.

“As far as open-wheel goes, I’ll repeat it: Until I’m slow, I’m going to stay in open-wheel. As far as I’m concerned, I’m pretty quick right now with the car that I have,” said Tagliani, who turns 40 in October.

“I’m about to renegotiate my deal for next year. It seems pretty good. So, you know, I would have to come into a season and just realize within myself that I don’t have it and I can’t compete in the top five. If I can’t do it, then it will come from myself, but IndyCar is pretty attractive for me.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

 
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