It's a busy Labor Day weekend in auto racing. All three of NASCAR's national touring series are competing at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The IZOD IndyCar Series runs on the streets of Baltimore, while Formula One ends its summer break with the Belgian Grand Prix.
Sprint Cup Series
AdvoCare 500 - Atlanta Motor Speedway - Hampton, Ga.
With two races to go before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, it's crunch time but not necessarily out of time for several drivers fighting for a playoff spot in NASCAR's premier series.
The top-three drivers in points -- Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- have already clinched a spot in the 12-driver field for the Chase. Matt Kenseth, who is currently fourth in points, has not officially locked down his position. However, Kenseth will punch his ticket into the show with a 40th-place finish or better in Sunday night's 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Right now, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are fifth through 10th in points, respectively. The top-10 positions for the Chase could mathematically be clinched at Atlanta. Any driver who leaves there 49 points ahead of 11th-place, which is currently occupied by Kasey Kahne, has earned a Chase spot before the series' regular-season-finale on Sept. 8 at Richmond.
Heading to Atlanta, the point separation between Stewart and Kahne is just 16. Stewart dropped from ninth to 10th in the standings following his 27th-place run at Bristol. Despite his recent decline in points, Stewart is almost assured a spot in the Chase by virtue of his three wins this season (Las Vegas, California and Daytona). Prior to Bristol, he finished 19th at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and 32nd at Michigan.
Stewart was in worse shape at this point last year. He had yet to win a race for the season and struggled to stay among the top-10 in points. But Stewart went on a tear during the Chase, winning five of the season's last 10 events and claiming his third series championship. He edged Carl Edwards for the title in a tiebreaker.
"I think it was worse last year, because we just hadn't won a race all season (up to Chicagoland), and if it wasn't the longest drought we've had, it was close to it," Stewart said. "To go that long without a win was pretty heart- breaking up to that point. We're looking forward to Atlanta and Richmond. We've got two really good tracks coming up before the Chase. I think it's a lot different feeling than it was last year at this time."
Stewart is coming off his clash with Kenseth at Bristol. While battling for the lead just after a restart, both drivers made contact and wrecked into the inside retaining wall along the frontstretch. Stewart retaliated at Kenseth by tossing his helmet at Kenseth's car when he was exiting off of pit road during the caution.
Stewart doesn't expect their feud to carryover into the remainder of the season, particularly during the Chase.
"This isn't the first time that anything has happened like this, and it's not the first time it's happened with Matt and I," Stewart said. "But it's never really lingered on past whatever has happened the past week. We still both have teams that are capable of going out and winning the championship, so you can either spend your time worrying about him, or you can spend your time worrying about how to win a championship. I find it more productive trying to figure out how to win a championship, and I'm pretty sure he's thinking the same way."
While Kahne occupies the first position in the wild card rankings due to his victories at Charlotte and New Hampshire, Kyle Busch moved up to the second and final wild card spot after his sixth-place finish at Bristol. Busch is 16 points ahead of Jeff Gordon in the rankings. His one win this season came in the spring race at Richmond.
"I would certainly like to think we can make the Chase, and we have the opportunity to do so, but that's all we can do," Busch said. "I can't sit here and tell you how much we deserve to be in the Chase or anything else. Atlanta hasn't been one of our best tracks recently, but this team is going to work hard this weekend to change that."
Gordon's first victory this season came in the Aug. 5 rain-shortened event at Pocono. He is the defending race winner at Atlanta.
"Obviously with what's going on in the Chase, (Atlanta) could be a crucial race for us," Gordon said. "We never go into any race banking on anything. We go there working hard to try and win the race. With so few changes, it's a track where I feel like it gives us a little bit more confidence that we can have a great weekend."
After ending last season in a points tie with Stewart, Edwards is in jeopardy of not making this year's Chase. Edwards is 12th in the point standings and has yet to win a race this season. It's been 57 races now since his last Sprint Cup victory, which came in March 2011 at Las Vegas.
In hopes of pulling off a victory at Bristol, Edwards gambled on fuel and tires late in the race. He held the lead until Hamlin passed him for the position with 39 laps remaining. Hamlin went on to take the checkered flag, while Edwards ran out fuel with a handful of laps to go and wound up finishing 22nd.
"We need to win," said Edwards, who sits seventh in the wild card rankings. "That's why you saw me stay out at Bristol and hang on to old tires, a low tank of fuel and try to hold the guys off, stay out front. Those are the kind of things we need to do if we don't have a dominant car."
Edwards' first career Sprint Cup victory came in March 2005 at Atlanta. He also won there later that year and again in Oct. 2008. If Edwards were to win this weekend at Atlanta, it would move him up to the second wild card spot.
Ryan Newman is fourth in the wild card rankings, followed by Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. Each one of the those drivers has a win this year. After finishing 36th at Bristol due to a wreck, Newman fell from second to fourth in the wild card battle. He is now 19 points behind Busch.
Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the AdvoCare 500.
NRA American Warrior 300 - Atlanta Motor Speedway - Hampton, Ga.
Saturday night's 300-miler at Atlanta Motor Speedway begins the final 10-race stretch in the Nationwide Series, and so does Elliott Sadler's vow to compete against Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in a different manner while the two duke it out for the series title.
Last weekend's race at Bristol set the tone for what could be an intense battle between Sadler and Stenhouse, who is the defending series champion. During a green-white-checkered finish, Stenhouse bumped Sadler out of the way and took second place from him.
Stenhouse finished runner-up to Joey Logano, while Sadler ended up placing fifth. Both drivers had a discussion about their incident after the race, but there was no altercation between the two.
"I'm glad he didn't wreck us, but it's not the finish we deserved," Sadler said. "He opened it up. Now we can race differently the last 10 races."
Stenhouse trimmed Sadler's points lead from 22 to 19.
"I definitely didn't expect to do that," Stenhouse said. "He definitely had a better race car than we did, and I didn't expect to get that run on him that we did, but luckily, he was able to save it. I definitely don't want to crash anybody and ended up second, but I was really hoping the last 20 laps or so were gonna go green. I felt like we were running down (Logano) and might have had a shot at a win, but that caution came out, and we ended up second."
One year ago, Stenhouse held just a five-point lead over Sadler when the series headed to Atlanta. Stenhouse went on to defeat Sadler for the championship by 45 points.
Seven of the last 10 Nationwide races this year will be contested on 1.5-mile racetracks, beginning with Atlanta. Stenhouse's first two wins this season came on mile and a half tracks (Las Vegas and Texas). His third and most recent victory occurred in May at Iowa (13 races ago). Stenhouse has finished third and 10th in his two Nationwide races at Atlanta.
"Racing at Atlanta is a lot of fun especially at night," he said. "The track is fast and it is rough, which can be tough on your tires, so we will have to keep a watchful eye on that. I like it because you run up high against the wall. Our No. 6 team is pumped going into Atlanta due to our success this year on 1.5-mile tracks."
Sadler has competed in six Nationwide races at Atlanta. He finished 10th there last year.
"I have always enjoyed competing at Atlanta Motor Speedway," he said. "There are a lot of intricacies to the track because of its slick nature, and there are a lot of bumps on the surface, which I think make it a 'driver's track'. The tires seem to wear out quickly, and you can run the bottom, middle or top line, allowing the driver a lot of options. I'm really looking forward to it."
Sam Hornish Jr. and rookie Austin Dillon are very much in the title hunt as well. Hornish is 28 points behind Sadler, while Dillon trails by 35 points.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the NRA American Warrior 300. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski are those Sprint Cup regulars scheduled to compete in this race.
Camping World Truck Series
Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 200 - Atlanta Motor Speedway - Hampton, Ga.
Kurt and Kyle Busch will face each other on the racetrack for the first time in the Camping World Truck Series this Friday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Driving his own No. 18 Toyota, Kyle Busch will make his first truck start since his run-in with Ron Hornaday Jr. last November at Texas. Busch deliberately wrecked Hornaday, punting him into the outside wall, during a caution. The incident occurred one lap after they made contact and crashed while battling for position.
NASCAR parked Busch for the remainder of the truck race and then suspended him for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events at Texas that weekend. He was later fined $50,000 and placed on probation for the remainder of the year.
Kurt Busch will team with his younger brother's previous owner, Atlanta-area resident Billy Ballew, who sold his team at the conclusion of the 2010 season. Ballew and Kyle Busch won 16 times as a team, including the 2005 and 2007-09 Atlanta races. Ballew returns to the series with the No. 51 Chevrolet, in association with James Finch's Phoenix Racing and crew chief Nick Harrison.
"The deal for this weekend came about when (Phoenix Racing team owner) James Finch and the group asked me to run Atlanta for Billy Ballew and his gang, and it's just another element of going out there and having fun," Kurt Busch said. "I believe, at the end of the day, Billy Ballew just wants to go out there and see how good his equipment still is."
Two weeks ago at Michigan, Kurt Busch made his first appearance in the Truck Series in 11 years. He drove the No. 18 for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Busch led a race-high 57 laps but ended up finishing ninth.
"The chance to drive Kyle's truck at Michigan was a unique opportunity to help with the team and evaluate his program and the fun factor was definitely through the roof," he said. "We led the most laps, and it just came down to fuel mileage. At Atlanta, it's all about saving your tires, so it's going to be more of a tire management race."
Kurt Busch finished second in points and earned rookie-of-the-year honors in the Truck Series in 2000. He graduated to Cup the following year. Busch has scored three victories in 21 Sprint Cup starts at Atlanta. He has yet to compete in a Nationwide or truck race there.
"Kurt was very successful as a rookie in the Truck Series, and that earned him a full-time Cup ride quickly," Kyle Busch said. "By the time I got to the Truck Series, Kurt had already established himself in the Cup Series, and for whatever reason, he didn't really run any Nationwide or Truck Series races, so we never got the chance to race against each other in NASCAR until I made it to the Cup Series.
"We've been able to race against each other a few times this year in the Nationwide Series, but it's been mostly working together in the tandem draft on the superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega). It will be really cool to be competing against each other in the trucks.
The Busch brothers are the only Sprint Cup regulars competing in this race.
"How exciting would it be to see things come down to a battle of me versus Kurt for the win on Friday night," Kyle Busch said.
Thirty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 200.
IZOD INDYCAR SERIES
Grand Prix of Baltimore - Streets of Baltimore - Baltimore, Md.
Even though eight drivers remain mathematically eligible for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship, Will Power is the one who's in the driver's seat for the title with just two races to go.
Power finished second in last Sunday's race at Sonoma, Calif. and widen his lead to 36 points over Ryan Hunter-Reay, who placed 18th after his incident with Alex Tagliani late in the race. Hunter-Reay also received a penalty for avoidable contact with E.J. Viso in the late going.
Helio Castroneves finished sixth at Sonoma and fell 41 points behind Power, his Team Penske teammate, while Scott Dixon's 13th-place run there put him 54 points out of the lead. Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Briscoe, who won at Sonoma, are still mathematically eligible.
Dario Franchitti, who has claimed the series championship the last three years, is now out of title contention. Franchitti currently sits ninth in the point standings.
Power won three of the first four races this season but has yet to score another victory. He has finished either second or third in the last three events.
"I just want to win another race," Power said. "Wins are right there, but we're not getting them. You have to think of the championship as well. If we have the car to win, we go for it. Obviously, as you get further into the season, you become more aware of what these guys are doing, if they're behind you or in front of you, and you know how aggressive you've got to be."
IndyCar runs its penultimate race on Sunday in downtown Baltimore. If Power leaves Baltimore with a lead of 54 points or more over his closest competitor in the standings, he will clinch his first series championship. He has finished second in points the past two years.
The Grand Prix of Baltimore is the final road/street course race this season. Power won last year's inaugural event on this two-mile temporary street circuit, which recently underwent a few modifications. The changes included the removal of the frontstretch chicane and the widening of the right-hand turn one.
"I have an idea of what they're going to change, and I think it's going to make for better racing," said Power, who started on the pole and led 70 of 75 laps in the 2011 Baltimore GP.
After the July 22 race at Edmonton, Hunter-Reay held a 23-point lead over Castroneves and a 26-point advantage over Power. But Hunter-Reay has dropped 79 points to Power in the last two events. He finished 24th in the Aug. 5 race at Mid-Ohio due to engine failure during the final laps.
Hunter-Reay, though, is far from giving up on his title hopes.
"It's frustrating to have had two races without the finish the (No. 28) team deserves, but we're going all-out to win the last two races," he said.
IndyCar will conclude its 2012 season on Sept. 15 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The series champion has been decided in the finale the past six years.
"In my mind, the championship is wide open, and we're focused on one thing - winning," Hunter-Reay noted. "I'm going to push hard and treat every lap like a qualifying lap. We'll do all we can to end the weekend in victory lane."
Twenty-five teams are on the entry list for the Grand Prix of Baltimore. Bruno Junqueira will substitute for the injured Josef Newgarden in the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car in this race. Newgarden, a rookie in the series this year, underwent surgery earlier this week to repair his broken left index finger that he suffered during a two-car crash at Sonoma.
Belgian Grand Prix - Spa-Francorchamps Circuit - Spa, Belgium
After a four-week vacation during the month of August, Formula One teams are back on course this weekend with the Belgian Grand Prix at the 4.352-mile, 19- turn Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
With eight grand prix remaining this season, Fernando Alonso from Ferrari holds a 40-point lead over Red Bull's Mark Webber, while Webber's teammate and two-time defending F1 world champion, Sebastian Vettel, is 42 markers behind. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton moved to within 47 points of Alonso after winning the July 29 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Alonso has the most wins this season with three, including two in the last four races. He finished fifth in Hungary.
"We have a lead of 40 points, courtesy of a car that has not been the best in the first half of the season," said Alonso, who has finished no worse than ninth in the first 11 races this year. "Now we must try and make a good leap forward in terms of performance to allow us to keep the lead in the championship, because in the long term, what we have now will not be enough. If we are where we are, it's because we have always made the most of what we had and because of an excellent reliability record."
Michael Schumacher from Mercedes will celebrate a career milestone in Sunday's 44-lap Belgian GP. Schumacher, the record seven-time F1 champion, is expected to become just the second driver to compete in 300 grand prix. The 43-year-old German holds just about every F1 record with the exception of total entries. Rubens Barrichello competed in 326 races from 1993-2011 before he moved over to the IndyCar Series.
"I'm proud to be just the second driver in the history of the sport to reach this milestone, and there's no question that we are looking to have a particularly nice weekend," Schumacher said. "We delivered a good performance in Spa last year. I'll be doing everything possible to drive a strong race."
Schumacher made his F1 debut in the 1991 Belgian GP and then scored his maiden win in this race the following year. His other victories in Belgium came from 1995-97 and 2001-02. Schumacher finished fifth in last year's race there.
"Spa is like my living room," he said. "For me, it's clearly the number one racetrack in the world. It's uncanny how I always seem to have special moments there - my debut, my first win, a world championship victory and many great races. The fact that I will also take part in my 300th grand prix at Spa was somehow almost inevitable, and we will have to celebrate it in the right way."
Schumacher has not won a grand prix since 2006 in Shanghai, China. He retired from F1 following the conclusion of the '06 season but returned to the sport for the start of the 2010 campaign.
Two months ago, Schumacher made his first podium appearance since coming out of retirement with a third-place finish in the European Grand Prix. He is currently tied with Williams' Pastor Maldonado for 11th in the drivers' point standings.
There have been seven different race winners this season. Could Schumacher become the eighth?
"Spa will be a special occasion for Michael and the team, as we follow his 20th anniversary last year by celebrating his 300th grand prix this time around," Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said. "It is a fantastic achievement, which has so far only been matched by one other driver, and we look forward to celebrating with him, and hopefully have a strong weekend."