This Week in Auto Racing March 16 - 18

The NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide track racing, while the 2012 Formula One season kicks off with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.


Sprint Cup Series

Food City 500 - Bristol Motor Speedway - Bristol, TN

The Sprint Cup Series runs its first short-track race of the season on Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

There have been three different winners in as many races this season -- Matt Kenseth (Daytona), Denny Hamlin (Phoenix) and defending series champion Tony Stewart (Las Vegas).

Who might be next?

Quite possibly Kyle Busch, judging on his previous performances at Bristol. Busch has won 12 NASCAR races at this 0.533-mile, high-banked track so far, with five of those wins in Sprint Cup.

In fact, he has won four of the last six Sprint Cup races there.

"I'm not exactly sure what makes me so good at Bristol," Busch said. "I've just had a lot of success there, but I've also had some misfortune there. Ever since I got through my rookie year [2005], I've just taken a liking to the place. Of course, I've been able to get some help from my brother [Kurt]. He's always been really, really good there. When they changed the track to this current surface, I just really took to it right away."

Busch won at Bristol one year ago but finished 14th there last August. He cut a tire and made contact with the wall late in that race.

"I think I missed a little bit of some of that stuff last fall, just not having the car set up right and trying too many different things that we're not quite used to," he said. "We ventured from the path a little bit, and it seems like, when you can get a good setup somewhere, you ought to stick with it and try to just fine-tune on it a little bit instead of saying, 'This isn't working this time or it's not working on this tire.' The track, most of the time, will influence how your setup should be, not the tire."

Brad Keselowski won the August 2011 race at Bristol, doing so with a broken ankle and a sore back, which he sustained during a crash while testing earlier that month at Road Atlanta.

Keselowski's hot streak during the summer months last season allowed him to clinch one of the two wild-card positions in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He finished fifth in points in his first Chase appearance.

Right now, Keselowski is sitting 21st in points. He finished 32nd at both Daytona and Las Vegas. Keselowski placed fifth at Phoenix.

"It's unfortunate that we've encountered the issues that we have, because I honestly believe we should have top-five finishes in every race thus far, he said. "That's racing, though. There are two very large pieces to winning a race -- speed and execution. We have the speed. Now we just need to learn from our mistakes and execute better. Execution is the easier of the two to fix. Bristol is a great place for us to put everything together. We've all tasted success there, and we can do it again."

One driver who's been making significant gains in the point standings the past couple of weeks is Jimmie Johnson. After completing only one lap and finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500, Johnson has posted two straight top-five finishes -- fourth at Phoenix and second at Las Vegas.

Johnson left Daytona minus-23 in points due to his disappointing finish there and his team's loss of 25 points for rules violations that occurred during the February 17 opening-day inspection for the Daytona 500.

He is now 23rd in the rankings and trails leader Greg Biffle by 64 points. Biffle has finished third in each of the first three races.

Johnson won at Bristol for the first time two years ago.

"I'm so proud of the one win I have there," he said. "It's been such a tough track on me over the years that I really want another trophy there. We've been very close, and I think we'll be a threat."

Earlier this week, Hendrick Motorsports lost its appeal to overturn the severe penalties assessed by NASCAR to Johnson's No. 48 team for the Daytona violation -- an illegal part (C-post) found on his car during inspection.

In addition to Johnson's points loss, crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were suspended for six Sprint Cup races. Knaus received a $100,000 fine as well.

Since team owner Rick Hendrick has requested a final appeal to National Stock Car Racing Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook, Knaus and Malec will be able to participate in this weekend's activities at Bristol.

Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Food City 500.

Nationwide Series

Ford EcoBoost 300 - Bristol Motor Speedway - Bristol, TN

Kyle Busch knows how to win at Bristol Motor Speedway, no matter which NASCAR race he competes in there. But that might not be the case for him in Saturday's Nationwide Series event.

Busch is a four-time Nationwide race winner at Bristol. He has won the last three races there while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch's first Nationwide victory at this track came in the spring 2006 race when he drove for Hendrick Motorsports.

He is now in his first year as driver and owner of the No. 54 Toyota.

Busch's team is currently 15th in the Nationwide owner point standings. He began the season with an 18th-place finish at Daytona due to an accident on the final lap. Busch placed 11th at Phoenix before finishing 33rd at his home track in Las Vegas.

"I expect us to keep building our program," he said. "We are learning every week. I've had a lot of success at this Bristol track, and I enjoy racing here. So to do that in one of our own cars is going to be cool. We just need to keep working together and working better, myself as the driver and for the crew. We know what we have to do."

Busch is one of the six Sprint Cup Series regulars competing in this race. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne are the others. Harvick has the most Nationwide race wins at Bristol with five.

Elliott Sadler is the current points leader. He holds a 15-point advantage over rookie and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon. Sadler has finished no worse than third so far this season. He won at Phoenix earlier this month.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Nationwide champion, picked up his first win of the season last Saturday at Las Vegas. He moved up to third in points, trailing Sadler by 17 markers.

Trevor Bayne, who is Stenhouse's teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, has been entered for this race. Bayne's No. 60 team competed without sponsorship at Daytona, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Roush Fenway had planned on not entering the No. 60 car at Bristol, but the team did secure sponsorship just before the entry deadline.

"I just hope we can keep it going," Bayne said. "I really want to contend for this championship this season. We've got an 11th and a seventh and a fourth, so we're getting better every week, and that's all you can hope for. We'll see what happens here in the future."

Bayne is currently fourth in points (-19).

Danica Patrick has some catching up to do in points. Patrick, in her first full season in Nationwide competition, has finished no better than 12th so far.

She raced at Bristol for the first time last year, finishing 33rd.

"I really enjoyed my first trip to Bristol," Patrick said. "I enjoyed the racing and the track. My day ended a little early, but I still got quite a bit of racing in...I won't ever forget walking onto the track for the first time on unloading day, just looking at it and seeing the banking that is just on the straightaway."

Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 300.


Australian Grand Prix - Albert Park Circuit - Melbourne, Australia

After months of preparation and testing, it's time for 12 teams and 24 drivers to get the 2012 Formula One season underway with this weekend's Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Double world champion Sebastian Vettel returns to Australia as the defending race winner. One year ago, Vettel started on the pole and put on a dominating performance on the 3.295-mile (5.303-kilometer) Albert Park course. The Red Bull driver only relinquished the lead during his first pit stop. He finished 22 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, Lewis Hamilton from McLaren.

During last week's final pre-season test session in Barcelona, Spain, Vettel seemed satisfied and optimistic about Red Bull's car for this season, the RB8. Now he's eager to see how well the car will perform in Melbourne.

"Testing has been busy over the last few weeks, and I think we have made a decent step with the car," Vettel said. "You never really know where you are until we get to Melbourne and even then you don't really see what everyone has got until qualifying."

Several changes in technical regulations and modifications to the cars have been implemented for the new season.

The Drag Reduction System (DRS) -- also known as the movable rear wing -- and the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) remain for 2012, but perhaps the biggest rules change for this season is the elimination of the exhaust-blown diffusers, which Red Bull utilized so well last year. The ban of the diffusers will affect the downforce of the cars.

Another significant revision is the height of the nose on the cars. Pit stops will be more of a challenge for teams this season. The use of helium in the wheel guns has been banned, which will make for slightly longer pit stops.

"I think the new rules have definitely made it a more competitive place," two- time Australian GP winner Jenson Button said. "It's been very difficult to read pace over the winter because a lot of teams have been playing their cards close to their chests. I think it's going to be extremely close, and I can't wait to find out where we sit in the pecking order."

The Australian GP will be a homecoming for Mark Webber from Red Bull and Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo.

Webber's best finish in front of his home crowd is fifth, which occurred three times, most recently in 2011.

"This will be my 11th Australian GP, and I can't wait to get started," he said. "The Grand Prix is one of the best sporting events that we have in Australia. It's great to see the support and Australian flags in the crowd. I've incorporated more of an Australian theme into my helmet, which I'll be using for the whole year, not just in Australia."

Webber snapped a 25-race winless streak with his victory in the November 27 season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix.

Ricciardo drove for HRT in the final 11 grand prix last year before he moved over to Toro Rosso for this season.

The Australian GP will also mark the return of former world champion Kimi Raikkonen to F1. Raikkonen had spent the past two years competing in the World Rally Championship. He signed with Lotus (formerly known as Lotus Renault GP) after last season had concluded.

"This will be the first race, so I don't know how we'll compare to the other teams," Raikkonen said. "My engineers have been running simulations and looking at the test data, so we have an idea of how the car should work at Albert Park, but we won't know for sure until we get out on track. It's very difficult to say before we've been out on track, but I think and hope we'll be reasonably strong."

Raikkonen won the Australian GP during his F1 championship season in 2007.