Sunday is the biggest day of the year in auto racing, starting with the Monaco Grand Prix, followed by the Indianapolis 500 and culminating with NASCAR's 600-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
IZOD INDYCAR SERIES
Indianapolis 500 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, Ind.
Three drivers share the record for most victories in the Indianapolis 500 with four -- A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
Could Sunday's 97th running of the Indy 500 feature a fourth driver added to that list of record winners?
Helio Castroneves from Team Penske and Dario Franchitti from Chip Ganassi Racing have three victories each at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Franchitti has won three of the last six races at Indy, including a victory here one year ago.
In a race that featured a record 34 lead changes, the 2012 Indy 500 concluded in thrilling fashion. Franchitti grabbed the lead for good on the penultimate lap. During the last circuit around this famed 2.5-mile oval, Takuma Sato bumped into him while the two were battling for the top spot. Sato slammed into the outside wall in turn one, forcing the race to end under caution. Franchitti took the checkered flag, while his teammate, Scott Dixon, crossed the finish line in second.
Franchitti's win here last year, though, was a difficult task. After starting 16th (on the inside of row 6), Franchitti endured a pit-road mishap early in the race when E.J. Viso bumped into the back of the four-time IndyCar Series champion and turned him around in his pit stall. Franchitti fell to 28th in the field but patiently made his way through the field before taking the lead for the first time with 47 laps to go.
Franchitti will start 17th in this year's Indy 500.
"There's no more pressure than there is on anybody else in the field," Franchitti said when he was asked if there was any pressure on him to win this race a fourth time. "Doesn't make you any faster. Doesn't make the team work any harder. It's simply right now about the mechanics of trying to put ourselves in a position to challenge on race day, trying to make sure the car is fast and consistent."
Sato wound up finishing 17th in last year's Indy 500, driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He had led three times for a total of 31 laps. Sato, who is in his first season driving for A.J. Foyt Racing, is the current points leader. He holds a 13-point advantage over Marco Andretti.
"The 500 last year was just an unforgettable day for me," Sato said. "Obviously, I was disappointed with the result, but still it was just a tremendous support from the team, and I had a great experience leading the 500 for the first time. It was a special feeling, in particular after the hard fight, hard race with everyone. When I came back to the garage (after the last-lap crash), hundreds of fans waited and cheered me on big time, and (team owner) Bobby (Rahal) really gave a big hand. It was just a special event."
Sato placed 18th in Indy 500 qualifying last Saturday. He will share row 6 with Franchitti and Dixon.
Franchitti won his first Indy 500 in 2007, a race shortened by 34 laps due to rain. He drove for Andretti Green Racing at the time. His second victory in this race came in 2010.
"I am very happy to have won one," Franchitti said. "Look at some of the great drivers that didn't get the opportunity even to win one, so I was happy. Three is beyond anything expected. But I really want the fourth."
Castroneves is the only driver who won the Indy 500 consecutively in his first two starts (2001 and '02). His most recent victory in this race came in 2009. He started on the pole in that event.
"I feel blessed to be in this opportunity, to be in this elite group, I feel blessed," Castroneves said. "I still have a great chance to keep going."
Castroneves will start from the middle of row 3, sharing the row with Ryan Hunter-Reay, the defending series champion, and James Hinchcliffe, who has two wins already this season (St. Petersburg, Fla. and Sao Paulo, Brazil). Castroneves is presently third in points (-20).
"Obviously in the situation that we are right now, we're certainly feeling very confident, but we know what we need to do as well," he said. "So now we're looking strong."
If Castroneves or one of his teammates, Will Power and A.J. Allmendinger, wins the Indy 500, It would be team owner Roger Penske's record-extending 16th victory in this race. Allmendinger, who is competing in his first Indy 500, qualified fifth, while Power placed one spot behind him in sixth.
Ed Carpenter, an Indianapolis native, will start on the pole for this race. Carpenter won the Indy 500 pole for the first time with a four-lap average of 228.762 mph during the final segment in qualifying (the fast-nine shootout). Andretti Autosport drivers Carlos Munoz, also a rookie in this year's event, and Marco Andretti will share the front row with Carpenter.
Thirty-three teams will have one last opportunity to practice and fine tune their cars for the 500-mile race in Friday's "Carb Day."
Sprint Cup Series
Coca-Cola 600 - Charlotte Motor Speedway - Concord, N.C.
After running the all-star race this past weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it's time for the Sprint Cup Series to get back to the point -- points racing that is.
Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 is not only the 12th points-paying race this season but the longest and perhaps most grueling event of the year in NASCAR's premier series.
Scheduled to start in the late afternoon and conclude at nighttime, the 600- mile race at Charlotte is physically and mentally challenging for drivers.
"You can't go into this race thinking, 'Oh, we're just going to cruise at the beginning and wait for the track to come to us'," said Hendrick Motorsports driver and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. "That used to exist, but it doesn't anymore. You start charging from the drop of the green flag."
Charlotte, a 1.5-mile racetrack, has been the site of several firsts for Gordon during his career, including his inaugural Sprint Cup race win (May 1994) and maiden pole position (October 1993). He also won the 600-mile event here consecutively from 1997-98. Gordon's fifth and most recent win at Charlotte came in the 500-miler in October 2007.
"The (Coca-Cola 600) starts during the day, and the track changes a lot when the sun goes down," Gordon said. "You have to be ready to stay on top of the adjustments - almost get ahead of them instead of getting behind on them. It's a very long race, and I like long races because it suits my style. But the car has to be right."
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champion and Gordon's teammate at Hendrick, won the all-star race for a record fourth time this past Saturday.
If Johnson takes the checkered flag for the 600-mile race this weekend, he will become the first driver to win both Cup events at Charlotte during the month of May twice in his career. Johnson won the Charlotte double in 2003.
Other drivers who have won the 600-mile event and the all-star race at Charlotte in the same season include: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Gordon (1997), Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch (2010).
Johnson had been the most dominant driver at Charlotte, finishing no worse than third here from May 2003 to October 2006. He is the only driver who has won three consecutive Coca-Cola 600s (2003-05). In fact, he recorded a season sweep at Charlotte during the '04 and '05 seasons. His most recent win at this track came in the fall of 2009.
Since that last win, Johnson has struggled somewhat at Charlotte, finishing 28th or worse in three of the last six races here. He won last year's all-star event but finished 11th in the 600-mile race one week later. His teammate, Kahne, won the 600.
"We've had decent finishes, been competitive and led laps, but the track is just so different now than it was (before it was repaved prior to the 2006 Coca-Cola 600), and we had it scienced out," Johnson said. "We knew literally what time in the afternoon, what the adjustment needed to be made to the car, and it was like clockwork, didn't matter the year, just every single time. It's not that way anymore."
Johnson enters this race with a comfortable 44-point lead in the standings. He won the Feb. 24 season-opening Daytona 500 and then scored his second victory of the year on April 7 at Martinsville.
"If I were to pick an area we need to improve on, it would be the 1.5-miles," Johnson said. "We're not bad. We're still getting good finishes. But we don't have that magic right now. I'm very happy to have this big points lead."
Carl Edwards is currently second in points, while his former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth, is third (-59).
"Mentally, I think all of us have to prepare a little bit for the extra distance," Edwards said in regards to the Coca-Cola 600. "It is a grueling event. If the temperatures are high the whole weekend, everyone starts the event hot and worn out already.
"So 600 miles, you can look at it and say it's only 20 percent longer than the other race we run at Charlotte, the 500 miler, but there's something about that last 100 miles that makes it a lot more mentally tough."
Kenseth, who is in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, leads the series with three wins this year, including a victory earlier this month in the Southern 500 at Darlington. He finished ninth in the all-star race.
"I'm looking forward to the weekend," Kenseth said. "The 600 is probably my favorite race of the year. Last weekend (in the all-star race) didn't go exactly as planned."
Kenseth's first career Cup win came in May 2000 at Charlotte.
Forty-four teams are entered in the Coca-Cola 600. Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, is scheduled to make his 700th consecutive start in the series.
History 300 - Charlotte Motor Speedway - Concord, N.C.
Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett is very much looking forward to Saturday's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Annett, who drives the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, is scheduled to compete in his first race since suffering a broken and dislocated sternum during an accident in the closing laps of the Feb. 23 Nationwide season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.
He was medically cleared for the 300-mile race at Charlotte following his MRI on Monday.
"Obviously, I can't wait to get back into the No. 43," Annett said. "It has been a long three months, and I am more than ready to jump back in the car. The accident at Daytona was disappointing for our team, but I'm very grateful for the amount of support I had from the team, NASCAR, family, friends and fans, and not to mention the outstanding medical team that helped me through all of this. While it was really hard to be on the sidelines, I realize that it was even more important to heal properly."
Aric Almirola, who drives for Petty in the Sprint Cup Series, substituted for Annett in the No. 43 car in March at Phoenix (the second race of the season). Reed Sorenson had been behind the wheel of that car since then.
Annett is expected to make his 140th career Nationwide start, including his ninth at Charlotte. His best finish here is 10th, which came one year ago. Annett finished a career-best fifth in the 2012 series point standings.
"It's always fun to race at Charlotte," he said. "Since it's a 'home' race for most of the teams, it's cool to see so many family and friends get to experience what we do every weekend. It's a fast mile-and-a-half track, and we typically run well at the bigger tracks, so hopefully we can get a decent run my first time back in the car."
Regan Smith enters this race with a 28-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr., while Elliott Sadler is presently 42 points behind Smith.
"It's been a good start to the season for us," Smith said. "We certainly want to keep that rolling this weekend. We want to keep the good forward momentum going. We had an opportunity to test (Wednesday at Charlotte) and worked through a lot of different things that we've been wanting to try with data on the race cars and things like that. So hopefully we can use that to continue to build on the points lead and have a good weekend this weekend."
Smith won at Talladega and finished seventh at Darlington earlier this month.
Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano are those Sprint Cup regulars scheduled for this race. Busch and Mark Martin share the record for most Nationwide victories at Charlotte with six each. Busch has not won here since May 2010.
Forty-five teams are entered in the History 300.
Monaco Grand Prix - Circuit de Monaco - Monte Carlo, Monaco
The Monaco Grand Prix is not only the most prestigious event on the Formula One calendar but its the toughest race of the season as well.
Monte Carlo has been one of the most difficult circuits, where overtaking is virtually impossible. Track position for the Monaco GP is key, since the pole sitter for this race has won it in eight of the last nine years, including the previous four. Lewis Hamilton won it from the third starting spot in 2008, the same year he captured his first F1 world championship when he was driving for McLaren. He is now in his first season with Mercedes.
"Monaco is spectacular," Hamilton said. "I don't feel it's like any other race. Winning here is unique and special, in its own way. When you do win here, when you finally get that, you have the most incredible feeling. Every time you come here that's what you're chasing for every year."
Hamilton's teammate, Nico Rosberg, topped the time charts in both practice sessions for the Monaco GP on Thursday. Hamilton placed fifth in the opening session and second in the final.
"A very productive day for us," Rosberg said. "We completed a lot of laps (77 laps combined in both sessions), and I feel comfortable with the car. It seems that we are quick again on one lap, but we have been working hard again to make improvements to our race pace. It will be interesting to see where we are compared to the others over the weekend, as it's not really representative today."
Rosberg has won the pole position for the last two grand prix -- Bahrain and Spain. Hamilton captured his first pole with Mercedes in the Chinese GP this past month. Neither Rosberg nor Hamilton has yet to win a race this season.
The 2.075-mile, 19-turn Monte Carlo circuit winds its way through the narrow streets, starting with the first corner from Ste-Devote, then moves uphill to the steep hill of Beau Rivage and plunges back down to the Mirabeau Hotel before heading into the tunnel and chicane, located along the illustrious harbor side. It wraps up at the tricky Loews hairpin.
Changes have been made to this circuit since last year's race. The track has been resurfaced on the pit straight and between turns 1 and 3. A number of improvements have been made to the left-side debris fencing on the approach to turn 3 and on the left between turns 8 and 10. A new 50-centimeter wide curb has been installed at the apex of turn 5, and the curb at the exit of turn 19 has been widened by 20 cm.
Monte Carlo features a slower average speed than any other circuit on the current F1 calendar. Teams bring their highest downforce aero configurations, and Pirelli supplies them with its soft and supersoft tires in order to maximize mechanical grip.
"You can't even make the smallest mistake, but if you do, you're lucky if it's just that your lap time is bad," Red Bull driver and three-time defending F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel said. "If you're not paying attention, you will end up in the barrier. Overtaking is possible, but only with risk. The best place for that is before the chicane. We come out of the narrow tunnel at more than 300 kph and race to the first gear-chicane. Whoever brakes later wins. Ideally, you have a good qualifying session and start from far forward."
Red Bull has won the last three Monaco GPs. Mark Webber scored the victory in this race in 2010 and last year, while Vettel took the checkered flag in 2011.
Fernando Alonso from Ferrari has an opportunity to make history in Monte Carlo. If Alonso were to cross the finish line in first in the Monaco GP, he would become the first driver to win it with three different teams. His first victory in this race came with Renault in 2006, and his second win came the following year when he drove for McLaren.
A Ferrari driver has not won the Monaco GP since Michael Schumacher last did it in 2001.
"It's been many years since Ferrari has not managed to win here, and for me personally, I could be the first man to win for three different teams, and for sure, that is a huge motivation to do it," Alonso said.
Alonso won the Spanish GP on May 12 in Barcelona. His teammate, Felipe Massa, joined him on the podium there with a third-place finish.
"The feeling is good, and the team is confident, as we saw we had a competitive package, getting both our cars onto the podium in Barcelona," Alonso said. "However, Monaco is a unique track where you need a special set- up and confidence in your driving. We have had two podiums here in the last couple of years, so we should be competitive again, and I hope to get a good result."