NASCAR runs on the road courses for the first time this season with the Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma Raceway and the Nationwide Series at Road America. The IndyCar Series will be at Iowa Speedway.
Sprint Cup Series
Toyota/Save Mart 350 - Sonoma Raceway - Sonoma, Calif.
The Sprint Cup Series will compete at the Sonoma Raceway road course in Northern California's wine country for the 25th time.
But this year's race at Sonoma will feature a couple of firsts -- a new qualifying procedure and the new Sprint Cup race car, the Gen-6.
Two months ago, NASCAR revealed a group-based format will be used in Sprint Cup qualifying for the road-course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, N.Y. (the second weekend in August). It's the same format used for the road-course events in the Nationwide Series.
Teams will qualify in groups instead of the traditional single-car runs held on the oval tracks. Drivers will be assigned to one of five or six groups, depending on the number of teams that practice at Sonoma. Group assignments will be based on practice speeds, from slowest to fastest.
Each group will have a set period of time, in which drivers can complete their qualifying run. The group's time begins when the first car receives the green flag at the start/finish line. A driver's fastest lap will count, and the starting field will be determined by overall qualifying speeds.
"I've been hoping for this qualifying for quite some time," said Greg Biffle, who won last Sunday's race at Michigan. "I loved it in the truck and Nationwide Series when I did it there. It's almost like it's less pressure on the driver, because you're not going out there by yourself, one lap, don't get a tire off anywhere. You've got to make a perfect lap. This gives you an opportunity to make two laps, typically two laps. The tires are falling off by the third lap."
Sonoma also will mark the first race for the Gen-6 on a road course. The new car is faster and has more downforce and better grip than the previous car, which was used from 2007-12. Teams are not quite sure how it will adapt to road-course racing.
"It's kind of odd because we never know what to expect with this new car," Biffle said. "It always kind of brings new things when we go to racetracks we haven't been to yet. I definitely think this car has a much better opportunity to pass, simply because we're allowed camber in the rear axle housing now, which we never had before. So it gives the car a little bit more rear grip.
"It should make for handling a little bit better, so maybe some more side by side, maybe some more passing. Though road racing inherently has been tough to pass. because everybody slows down at the same point to go around the same corner. So I think this car could definitely promote more passing and better racing because of the attributes it has over the old car."
Last month, Richard Petty Motorsports drivers Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose tested at Sonoma for two days, familiarizing themselves with the Gen-6 on this course. Ambrose, who excels in road racing, is one of the favorites to win Sunday's 110-lap race at Sonoma. The Australian has finished no worse than eighth in the last four events here. His two career Sprint Cup wins have come at Watkins Glen (2011 and '12).
"We know the two road course races are easy targets for us," Ambrose said. "We have struggled at Sonoma the last couple of years, and we wanted to go there to get a check on this new car, to try to dial in the racetrack.
"It was good to go out there. It was very expensive to go out there. It took a lot of commitment, a lot of time away from the workshop, a lot of time away from our weekly schedule. To travel the truck out there, rent the facility was not cheap. It was a big commitment to do it."
Jeff Gordon has the most wins at Sonoma with five, but Gordon's last victory here came in 2006. There have been no repeat winners in the last eight races at this track. Clint Bowyer is the defending race winner.
"Hopefully, we can do it again," Bowyer said. "It's always nerve-wracking just getting on the racetrack, shifting gears and having to down shift coming onto pit road to meet pit-road speed. It's exciting, and the track itself is fun. I think it's like a short track of road-course racing."
Danica Patrick is expected to make more series history. No female has competed in a Cup race at Sonoma. Patrick is quite familiar with this course. She made seven IndyCar starts here, with her best finish of fifth coming in 2008.
"It's going to be challenging," Patrick said. "Stock car drivers just don't get a lot of time on road courses, and I've spent my whole career for the most part doing it. It's nice to go to a place where I feel comfortable I suppose."
Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Three drivers -- Alex Kennedy, Victor Gonzalez Jr. and Paulie Harraka -- will attempt to make their first career start in the series at Sonoma. The last time three or more drivers made their Cup debuts in the same race was on Oct. 24, 2004, with Chad Chaffin, Mario Gosselin and Travis Kvapil making their maiden starts at Martinsville.
Johnsonville Sausage 200 - Road America - Elkhart Lake, Wis.
Brian Vickers has a very busy weekend ahead of him, and has a lot of traveling to do as well.
Vickers is the only driver who will attempt to compete in both the Sprint Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway and the Nationwide Series event at Road America. Vickers, a Nationwide regular, will spend Friday and Saturday at Road America. After the race is completed there, he will fly over 2,200 miles to Sonoma in time for Sunday's Sprint Cup event.
"This is the first time I've done a Cup and Nationwide weekend when they're separated," Vickers said. "It's going to be fun, but it's going to be challenging. I do think that the fact that the Nationwide race is a road race as well as obviously the Cup race will help, just not going from an oval to a road and back and forth. I think being on a road course in both places will help."
Vickers is driving the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing at Sonoma. Jason Bowles will practice and qualify Vickers' car there. Vickers finished fourth in last year's Sonoma race.
This will be the first time Vickers competes at Road America, which is 4 miles in length. It's the longest racetrack in all three of NASCAR's national touring series. Vickers is in his first season as driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in Nationwide. He is currently 10th in the point standings.
Points leader Regan Smith is another driver who has yet to compete at Road America. Smith enters this race with a very comfortable 58-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr.
"I would say the hardest thing for myself and I think a lot of guys going into this weekend (at Road America) is that we've never seen it," Vickers said. "Most of the guys have not raced there. A few have. I believe maybe Sam Hornish has run there in other cars, Max Papis and a few guys, but most guys have not, including myself, and the hardest part is going to be just learning a new 4-mile racetrack."
Forty-two teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Johnsonville Sausage 200. A.J. Allmendinger is scheduled to drive the No. 22 Ford for Penske Racing. Allmendinger is expected to make his first Nationwide start in five years. He had eight starts in the series from 2007-08.
IZOD INDYCAR SERIES
Iowa Corn Indy 250 - Iowa Speedway - Newton, Iowa
Defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay is hoping his winning momentum will continue this weekend at Iowa Speedway.
Last Saturday, Hunter-Reay won at The Milwaukee Mile for the second year in a row. He joined his Andretti Autosport teammate, James Hinchcliffe, as the only drivers with multiple victories this season. Hunter-Reay also moved up to second in the championship standings. He trails Helio Castroneves by 16 points.
Hunter-Reay won last year's race at Iowa, which was his second of three straight victories. His winning streak continued in Toronto.
"The Iowa Speedway oval is one of a kind; a very unique track that makes for some of the closest racing of the year," Hunter-Reay said. "Last year's race came down to the wire, and I expect the same this year. The strategy is certainly different this time around with the heat races paying points, so we need to focus on not only being fast at the end of the race, but coming right out of the box strong."
For the second year, the starting field at Iowa will be determined through three heat races. Each heat is 50 laps in length, and the lineups for the races are set by single-car, single-lap qualifying.
The first heat race will consist of the even-numbered positions, starting with the 10th-quickest practice time overall. It will determine the even-numbered positions in the starting field from 10th down.
Race 2 will feature the odd-numbered positions, starting with the ninth- quickest practice time overall. The odd-numbered positions in the starting field from 9th down will be decided in this event.
Race 3 will consist of drivers ranked one through eight by combined practice times. The finishing order of race 3 will set the top-eight starting spots, with the winner taking the pole position.
The 250-mile event at Iowa is scheduled for Sunday (3 p.m. ET). It had run on Saturday night in the past.
"This year, we're racing in daylight hours for the first time since I could remember," Hunter-Reay said. "It's going to be a different race this year."
Hunter-Reay's teammate, Marco Andretti, won at Iowa two years ago but has not been into victory circle for an IndyCar race since then. Andretti finished second at this track last year. At Milwaukee, he started on the pole and led the first 61 laps before he suffered a mechanical issue late in the race and ended up finishing 20th. He is now 50 points behind Castroneves.
"As a team, we've traditionally been strong in Iowa, and we need to continue that this year," Andretti said. :We're coming for a win but definitely would like to at least keep the consistency going. With the heat races paying extra points, we're aiming for total domination and maximum points."
Twenty-four teams are on the entry list for the Iowa Corn Indy 250.