This Week in Auto Racing March 14 - 15

( - Phoenix International Raceway marks the second week of a three-week West Coast swing for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series. Formula One begins its 2015 season with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.


Sprint Cup Series 500 - Phoenix International Raceway - Avondale, Arizona

Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick is hoping his streak of top-twos will reach seven this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, a track where he has won the last three times.

A streak dating back to last season, Harvick has finished either first or second in six straight Sprint Cup races. It began the first weekend in November when he was runner-up to Jimmie Johnson at Texas. Harvick then won the last two races of the season -- Phoenix and Homestead -- to claim his first championship in NASCAR's premier series.

Harvick finished second to Joey Logano in the Feb. 22 season-opening Daytona 500 and then runner-up to Johnson in the March 1 race at Atlanta before winning at Las Vegas this past Sunday.

Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, became the first competitor in the series to finish in the top-two in six consecutive races since Jeff Gordon last accomplished the feat in 1996.

"I think that just comes down to the guys on my race team and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing for just bringing really good cars to the racetrack, and in particular the No. 4 team, in being able to capitalize and manage the weekends and races and keep the cars together and do all the things that it takes to just make laps and keep yourself in contention," Harvick said. "Just really proud of everybody on my team for everything that they've done, and hopefully we can keep it rolling. We'll try to ride the wave as long as we can."

Harvick is the current leader in the Sprint Cup point standings. He holds a nine-point advantage over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Phoenix has been Harvick's best racetrack over the years. His six Sprint Cup race wins at this flat, one-mile track is more than any other competitor. On Sunday, he will attempt to become the first driver to win four races in a row here. Johnson won three straight at Phoenix from 2007-08.

Since this track was repaved and reconfigured in 2011, Harvick has been the most dominant driver here. He led 224 laps in the spring race and 264 laps in the fall event at Phoenix last year, en route to a season-sweep.

"Honestly, the reconfiguration has definitely worked out better for us than I thought it would because, when they first did it, I thought we had really figured out what we needed to do on the old surface and then they changed the surface," he said. "We kind of picked right up and almost went better than it did on the old surface with the new surface.

"It's just kind of one of those things where you figured out a couple of little things that help you, and I know the feeling that I want my car. I know what I want it to feel like in practice and in the race. If we can achieve that, then usually we are competitive. It's just interesting how you find those places where you know what you want to feel and it just works."

When Harvick won at Phoenix one year ago, it came in just his second start with Stewart-Haas Racing. He went on to score four more victories during his Sprint Cup championship season.

"I think that was big for us, for sure," Harvick said of his win in the spring race at Phoenix in 2014. "I think as you look back at that particular moment, it was one of those things where getting that first win out of the way was a big deal. It's exciting to be able to know that we knocked the first one out and then knocked several out in the championship after that, so that is pretty cool stuff."

In Friday's lone practice session, Harvick turned in the fourth fastest lap at 138.132 mph. Logano topped the speed charts at 138.771 mph.

Forty-five teams are on the entry list for the 500. Kurt Busch, who is Harvick's teammate at SHR, returns to racing after NASCAR lifted his indefinite suspension on Wednesday.

Xfinity Series

Axalta 200 - Phoenix International Raceway - Avondale, Arizona

The Xfinity Series will run its fourth race of the season on Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway.

Ty Dillon holds the lead in the championship standings after beginning the season with three straight top-10 finishes. Dillon placed third at both Daytona and Atlanta and then eighth at Las Vegas. He has a six-point lead over Chris Buescher and a 15-point advantage over Ryan Reed. Darrell Wallace Jr. trails by 16, and Chase Elliott, the defending series champion, is 24 behind.

Dillon, the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, finished fourth and 10th at Phoenix last year, his rookie season in Xfinity. He made his second-career Sprint Cup Series start at this flat, one-mile track last November, placing 27th in the No. 33 Chevrolet.

"I've always enjoyed Phoenix because I like racing short tracks," Dillon said. "I grew up racing dirt late models on short tracks and always enjoy the opportunity to utilize my short track racing skills. Last year, we found a lot of speed and had two solid finishes (at Phoenix). We're looking to build on our fourth-place finish last November and hopefully get to the winner's circle."

Dillon has one win in 48 career Xfinity starts. His victory occurred in last year's race at Indianapolis.

Dillon's older brother, Austin, is one of four Sprint Cup regulars competing in this 200-mile race. Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano are the others.

Last weekend, Austin Dillon won at Las Vegas with a dominating performance. The driver of the No. 33 RCR Chevrolet led 183 of 200 laps en route to his third career victory in Xfinity.

"The No. 33 Rheem (sponsor) team has put together a fleet of great race cars this season," Dillon said. "We showed last weekend we can put together a good race. Just because we won doesn't mean we can sit back and not try anything new. We always have to be working at figuring out how to make the cars go faster and drive better. I'm confident this team will be run up front this year."

Dillon won the series championship in 2013 before he became a rookie in Sprint Cup the following year.

Forty-one teams are on the entry list for the Axalta Faster, Tougher, Brighter 200.


Australian Grand Prix - Albert Park Circuit - Melbourne, Australia

After months of preparation and testing, 10 teams and 20 drivers are ready to get the 2015 Formula One season underway with this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are also set to begin their driver and constructors' title defenses. This season will feature a record-tying 20-race calendar, which will conclude Nov. 29 in Abu Dhabi.

Last year, Hamilton won 11 of the 19 races and finished the season 67 points ahead of his Mercedes teammate and championship rival Nico Rosberg. It was the second F1 world championship for Hamilton. Mercedes clinched its first constructors' title when Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix, as three races remained in the season.

Mercedes won 16 grand prix during the 2014 season, beginning with Nico Rosberg's victory in Australia. Rosberg went on to score four more wins last year.

Rosberg's attempt to win a second straight Australian GP got off to a good start on Friday, as he led the way in the two practice sessions. The German's quickest lap around the Albert Park Circuit during P1 was clocked in 1 minute, 29.557 seconds. His time of 1:27.697 topped the charts in P2.

"It was great to be back in the car at this awesome track," Rosberg said. "Today, we have the evidence that our Silver Arrow is quick again, and it was a great start for the team. I was very happy with my long run, but on one lap, I still need to work on the pace, as I had a lot of oversteer in the car."

Hamilton had the second fastest lap in each of the two practices. He was only 0.029 seconds behind Rosberg in P1 and just 0.1 seconds in back of his teammate in P2. Hamilton has yet to win the Australian GP. He claimed the pole for last year's race here, but after completing only two laps, he was forced to retire due to engine failure.

"It feels great to be back on track and back into a race weekend," Hamilton said. "I'm not 100 percent comfortable with the car, but that's to be expected on the first day. (Friday) seemed to confirm that we have pretty good pace. But there are still other quick cars out there, and we can't go into (Saturday's final practice and qualifying) sessions not thinking that they will be close."

While Hamilton and Rosberg were in a league of their own last year, it could be a different story for the Mercedes duo this season. Sebastian Vettel, the four-time F1 world champion, is now with Ferrari, teaming up with Kimi Raikkonen. Vettel had a disappointing season in '14, his last with Red Bull. He failed to win a race and placed fifth in the world championship point standings.

Vettel, making his competition debut with Ferrari this weekend in Melbourne, had the fifth fastest time in the first practice (1:31.029) and the third quickest lap in P2 (1:28.412).

"It was a good day with no problems on the car," Vettel said. It looks like the hard work done during the winter, both on track and at the factory at Maranello (Italy), is paying off."

Ferrari has not won a race since the May 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, with driver Fernando Alonso, and Vettel's last victory in a grand prix occurred in the '13 season-finale in Brazil.

Alonso returned to McLaren for this season after driving for that team in 2007. He will miss the Australian GP due to a concussion he suffered during an accident in preseason testing last month in Barcelona. He is expected to return for the Malaysian Grand Prix the last weekend in March. Kevin Magnussen, the test and reserve driver for McLaren, will fill-in for Alonso in Australia.