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NASCAR

This Week in Auto Racing June 22 - 24

For the first time this season, NASCAR competes on the road courses, with the Sprint Cup Series running at Infineon Raceway and the Nationwide Series racing at Road America. The IZOD IndyCar Series heads to Iowa Speedway, while Formula One travels to Valencia, Spain for the European Grand Prix.

NASCAR

Sprint Cup Series

Toyota/Save Mart 350 - Infineon Raceway - Sonoma, CA

When its the first week of summer, the Sprint Cup Series makes its annual pilgrimage to the 1.99-mile, 12-turn Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrives to Sonoma this weekend with one thing finally behind him -- a four-year winless streak. To the delight of his millions of fans, Earnhardt Jr. made it back to victory lane last Sunday at Michigan, ending a string of 143 races without a win.

Earnhardt Jr. -- NASCAR's most popular driver -- is having one of his best season's in Sprint Cup so far. With the win at Michigan, Earnhardt Jr. moved to within four points of leader Matt Kenseth. He has scored 12 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races this year.

"We started off (the season) pretty quick and we have gotten quicker and quicker, especially these last couple weeks," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We'll just try to keep doing that and win the next race and see what happens."

Earnhardt Jr. is now focusing on more wins during the regular season to help him secure extra bonus points before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Eleven races remain before the Chase begins on September 16 at Chicagoland.

"I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously," he said. "We'll think about where we are points-wise when that all happens after Richmond (September 8). But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself."

Sunday's race at Sonoma is the first of two road-course events in the series this season. Watkins Glen, NY is scheduled for August 12.

Earnhardt Jr. has struggled on the road courses, particularly Sonoma. His best finish in 12 races there is 11th, which came three times, most recently in 2010.

"We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top-ten at that place," he noted. "We have a lot to accomplish this year."

While Earnhardt Jr. is in a great shape right now to qualify for this year's Chase, several drivers, including four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, have their work cut out if they want to make it into the playoffs.

Gordon, who is Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, is currently 20th in the point standings. He trails 10th-place Brad Keselowski by 83 points. Gordon holds the series record for most wins on road courses with nine, including five at Sonoma. However, it's been six years since his last trip to victory lane at a road course.

"While we haven't had the same success we once had on road courses, I look forward to those events," Gordon said. "The road courses bring a different set of challenges, and those challenges are fun."

Gordon has finished ninth or better in the last six races at Sonoma, including a win in 2006. He placed second there one year ago.

Since he is presently in the top-20 in points, Gordon is in "wild card" territory, but he desperately needs a win to get back into playoff contention.

"When you're back where I'm at, you just have to win; it's the only chance you have," he said. "If we finally start to put it together, we'll make it in. And if we don't, we'll start working on it next year."

Carl Edwards is 11th in the rankings and trails Keselowski by just two points. Following Edwards in the standings are: Kyle Busch (12th), Ryan Newman (13th), Paul Menard (14th), Joey Logano (15th), Kasey Kahne (16th), Marcos Ambrose (17th), Jamie McMurray (18th) and Juan Pablo Montoya (19th).

Busch, Newman, Logano and Kahne have one victory each so far this season.

Ambrose, who is in his second season with Richard Petty Motorsports, won the most recent road-course race last August at Watkins Glen. The Australian claimed his maiden Sprint Cup victory there. He has also performed well at Sonoma, finishing sixth or better in the past three years there.

"I'm in a great team, and I'm in the best position I've ever been in the sport," Ambrose said. "Right now as I sit here mid-season, we still feel we have a chance to make the Chase if we can win some races. We have speed. We have to convert them into results."

Ambrose won his first pole in the series last Saturday at Michigan. He did so in record-setting fashion, turning a lap around the newly repaved two-mile track at 203.241 mph.

Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Nationwide Series

Sargento 200 - Road America - Elkhart Lake, WI

While the Sprint Cup Series runs at Infineon Raceway in Northern California, the Nationwide Series also competes on a road course this weekend at Road America in Northeast Wisconsin.

At 4.048 miles in length, Road America is the longest track on any of NASCAR's three national touring series. The course is located in Elkhart Lakes, which is roughly 60 miles north of Milwaukee. Nationwide ran at this track for the first time in 2010 when it replaced The Milwaukee Mile on the schedule.

Two years ago, Carl Edwards put on a dominating performance in the inaugural race at Road America, leading 35 of 50 laps. But Edwards had to wrestle the lead away from Canadian Jacques Villeneuve after a restart with nine laps remaining. Villeneuve suffered engine failure on the final lap, allowing Ron Fellows, also from Canada, to take over the second spot. Fellows finished 4.3 seconds behind Edwards, while Villeneuve placed 25th.

In what was a very confusing finish, Reed Sorenson won last year's race at Road America. Sorenson drove for Turner Motorsports at the time.

The race featured three green-white-checkered attempts for several wrecks in the closing laps. Sorenson's then-teammate, Justin Allgaier, held the lead on the final lap, but after the caution flag waved for an incident involving Aric Almirola, Allgaier ran out of fuel and stalled on the course. Fellows then passed Sorenson, and it appeared at first that Fellows took the lead. But NASCAR reviewed the finish for several minutes and determined that Fellows advanced his position after the yellow flag had been displayed. Sorenson was then declared the winner.

Saturday's race will feature a third different winner at Road America, since Edwards and Sorenson are not entered in the event.

Fellows and Villeneuve are scheduled to compete in this race, with Fellows driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports and Villeneuve behind the wheel of the No. 22 Dodge for Penske Racing.

"I have competed in a lot of races with JR Motorsports, and it's been great fun," Fellows said. "They have an amazing group of people, and we've been competitive at almost all of the races. That's what brings me back and keeps me young."

Villeneuve is also slated to drive the No. 22 car in the August 18 race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

"I appreciate Penske Racing giving me the opportunity to get back behind the wheel of the No. 22 Dodge this season," he said. "Road America and Montreal are two of my favorite racetracks. I feel, after winning the pole last year at Montreal, that we can have a lot of success. A NASCAR victory is something I want."

Elliott Sadler comes to Road America with an eight-point lead over second- place and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon, who is a rookie in Nationwide this season. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending series champion, is now 27 points out of the lead. Stenhouse has finished 25th or worse in the past three races -- Charlotte, Dover and Michigan.

"After the past few weeks, we look forward to Road America," Stenhouse said. "After testing at (Virginia International Raceway) in May, I feel like I learned a few things that can help me succeed at the road course tracks. We finished eighth (at Road America) last year, so we are looking to improve on that finish. Our main focus this weekend is to leave Road America with a solid finish."

Forty-five teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Sargento 200.

IZOD INDYCAR SERIES

Iowa Corn Indy 250 - Iowa Speedway - Newton, IA

The competition in the IZOD IndyCar Series is going to heat up this weekend at Iowa Speedway.

In February, IndyCar revealed that three heat races of 30 laps each will replace single-car qualifications for the June 23 event on the 0.875-mile Iowa oval. The groups for each qualifying race will be determined by combined practice session times. Practice and qualifying at Iowa are scheduled for Friday. The 250-lap race is slated for Saturday.

The first heat race will consist of the even-numbered positions, starting with the 10th-quickest practice time overall, and determine the even-numbered positions in the starting field from 10th down.

Race two will feature the odd-numbered positions, starting with the ninth- quickest practice time overall, and determine the odd-numbered positions in the starting field from 9th down.

The third and final race will consist of drivers ranked one through eight by combined practice times. The finishing order of that event will determine the top-eight starting positions, with the winner taking the pole position.

IndyCar's new Iowa oval qualifying procedure will complement the three rounds of qualifications held on road/street courses, culminating in the "Firestone Fast Six."

"The build-up we presently have for the 'Firestone Fast Six' has that excitement, and we wanted to do something similar for the oval events," IndyCar President of Competition and Race Control Director Beaux Barfield said. "It's going back to the heritage of short-track races."

But some drivers are not exactly thrilled with this new qualifying procedure, particularly Will Power, who is the current points leader.

"It makes it harder, actually, because practice determines whether you have a shot at going for the pole, being in that final race," Power said. "I hope it doesn't make things dangerous out there with everybody trying to get the fastest lap in practice. We'll see. I don't know what to say until we try. There's always resistance anytime someone wants change. It just seems like human nature."

Earlier this week, IndyCar officials sent a technical bulletin to teams, informing them of a modification to the cars that will reduce downforce. IndyCar has directed a maximum rear flap angle of 37 degrees with no wicker allowed for this race.

The short oval aerodynamic package utilized at the Milwaukee Mile this past weekend will also be used at Iowa. Twenty-one drivers participated in a test session last week at Iowa to evaluate the aero package for the new Dallara cars.

"I'm interested to see what we have with the new car and new downforce," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won at The Milwaukee Mile. "We don't know what to expect there. With the qualifying heats, it's going to be mixed-up, but we'll make the most of it. It's tough because you'll really have to take it easy and not hurt your race car in a heat race. (Teammate) Marco (Andretti) tested there and said it would be tough to pass, but it's always been that way in the past. Then we start the race, and it becomes a 'passfest'."

Andretti won last year's race at Iowa.

"We are coming (to Iowa) ready to win." he said. "We did it last year, and we were really strong in the test. I need a win now more than ever, because we've been fast almost every week, but we just keep having something go wrong."

Power enters this race with a 31-point lead over James Hinchcliffe, while Scott Dixon is 35 points behind.

Twenty-five teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Iowa Corn Indy 250.

FORMULA ONE

European Grand Prix - Streets of Valencia - Valencia, Spain

The 2012 Formula One season just keeps getting better, as a record seven different drivers have won in as many grand prix.

Will that record extend to eight?

We'll find out this weekend when F1 takes its world-wide tour to Valencia, Spain for the European Grand Prix.

Earlier this month, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton kept the streak alive when he won the Canadian Grand Prix.

Hamilton benefited from a two pit-stop strategy, which allowed him to chase down Ferrari's Fernando Alonso for the lead with fresher tires. Alonso, who pitted only once during the race, gave up the lead to Hamilton with four laps remaining.

By winning the Canadian GP, Hamilton moved himself atop the driver's championship standings, as he holds just a two-point lead over Alonso and a three-point advantage over Red Bull driver and two-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel.

"My win in Montreal was obviously an extremely satisfying moment for me, but actually, it does very little to alter things in the world championship," Hamilton said.

Hamilton began the season with a trio of third-place finishes followed by a pair of eighth-place runs. He finished fifth in last month's Monaco Grand Prix before winning in Canada.

"I think that consistency, rather than individual strong results, will be the key to winning this world championship, so we need to back it up in Valencia with another strong result," Hamilton added.

Hamilton finished ninth in the European GP during his rookie season in 2007. He placed second in this event for the next three years before finishing fourth in 2011.

The winners of the first six grand prix this year include: Jenson Button (Australia), Alonso (Malaysia), Nico Rosberg (China), Vettel (Bahrain), Pastor Maldonado (Spain) and Mark Webber (Monaco).

Vettel has figured out the 3.367-mile, 25-turn Valencia street circuit better than anyone else lately. He has started on pole and won this event the past two years.

"In Valencia, we drive an average of more than 200kph, which means it's one of the fastest street circuits in Formula One," Vettel said. "Overtaking is possible, but only with some risk. The reason is that the air turbulence created by cars driving closely behind each other doesn't disappear as it normally would due to the high walls around the track. You lose grip, and in some extreme cases, you have to lift the throttle.

"The start-finish straight in Valencia is special, because it's not very long. It turns into a fast right corner, which we take at 290kph."

Valencia's 25 turns is the most of all road/street courses on the current F1 calendar.

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