This Week in Auto Racing Aug. 24-26

The NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series will run on Bristol Motor Speedway's new track surface, while the IZOD IndyCar Series will return to action at the Sonoma, Calif. road course this weekend.


Sprint Cup Series

Irwin Tools Night Race - Bristol Motor Speedway - Bristol, Tenn.

Unlike recent years, racing at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night will be a tougher task than usual for Sprint Cup Series teams.

The concrete surface at this 0.533-mile, high-banked oval underwent a modification since NASCAR was last there in March. The top groove of the surface was grinded with the intention of bringing back traditional racing at Bristol.

In 2007, the track was reconfigured with the addition of variable banking. It produced more side-by-side racing and therefore lowered the amount of beating and banging among competitors. Fan response to Bristol's new banking was not favorable since the number of cautions was significantly reduced.

This year's spring race at Bristol featured just five cautions. The only major incident during that event occurred in the early going for a seven-car crash in turn one, taking out several notable drivers such as Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne. Before its reconfiguration five years ago, Bristol had featured as many as 20 cautions.

So what are teams expecting when they return there this weekend?

"Who knows what will happen," said Edwards, who is a two-time winner of Bristol's night race. "Anytime you change a track like that there is no telling. It might make it a completely different race."

The changes at Bristol might be pleasing to race fans, but will it be nerve- wracking to drivers?

"I just hope that they didn't screw it up," said Greg Biffle, who is Edwards' teammate at Roush Fenway Racing. "It is a shot in the dark if you will. You are just sitting back trying to make a plan, and you don't know if it will work or not. It is that simple. Who knows if that is going to work. You don't. We just have to wait and see when we get there. I think it is going to be exciting either way."

Biffle claimed his second win of the season last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway and moved atop the point standings.

Two months ago, Goodyear held a tire test following the completion of Bristol's altered surface. Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and defending series champion Tony Stewart were those who participated in the one-day test.

"Guys who run up there aren't going to be able to do that because it's pretty slick up there," Stewart said. "There's going to be less room to race, that's for sure. We've gone from a three-groove track to two grooves, and any time you've got less room to get around, it can get pretty interesting.

"I'm one of the guys who likes that high groove, so it's really going to change things up for me. It'll change things for everybody though, because when you take away room to race on a track this small with 43 cars, yeah, it's going to tighten things up."

With three races to go before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, as many as 10 drivers have an opportunity to punch their tickets into the playoffs at Bristol. They include: Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer, Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kahne.

Keselowski will attempt to win his third straight Sprint Cup race at Bristol. If Keselowski takes the checkered flag for the Cup event, he will join Fred Lorenzen, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Kurt Busch as those drivers with three or more consecutive victories there. Waltrip won a record seven races in a row at Bristol from 1981-84.

"From day one, the first day I walked in there, I respected it, but I also wanted to win there," Keselowski said. "To be on the cusp of three wins in a row there is something that was, and still is, beyond my wildest dreams. But here we are, and we are going to do everything in our power to get it done this weekend."

Keselowski, Johnson and Stewart have the most victories this season with three each.

Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Nationwide Series

Food City 250 - Bristol Motor Speedway - Bristol, Tenn.

After finishing second in last Saturday's road course race in Montreal, Sam Hornish Jr. continued his methodical climb in the Nationwide Series point standings.

Hornish has finished either second or third in the last four Nationwide races. In fact, the Penske Racing driver has scored 10 straight top-10 finishes and has accumulated more points than another driver in the series since the June event at Michigan.

Heading into Friday night's 250-lap race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Elliott Sadler holds a 22-point lead over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Hornish. Rookie Austin Dillon is 35 points out of the lead.

Some of Hornish's success in Nationwide might be attributed to his extra time on the track. Hornish has been driving Penske's No. 22 Dodge in the Sprint Cup Series since the first week in July at Daytona. Team owner Roger Penske called on him to take over driving duties of that car when A.J. Allmendinger was suspended by NASCAR for violating its substance abuse policy.

"Obviously, when you get more track time in a race car, things come a little bit easier for you, especially when you get the weekend's when you can run both series at the same track," Hornish said. "I just feel like we were making ourselves better."

Hornish has yet to win a Nationwide race this season. His first victory in the series came in Nov. 2011 at Phoenix.

"I feel like it will be harder to win over here (Nationwide Series) than in the Cup Series for me at this time," Hornish admitted. "I feel like a lot of times when I'm racing now in the Nationwide Series, I'm a little bit more points racing than I'd like to be. That's what has gotten us to the position where we are, and that's what we have to keep doing - keep the car going forward all day long, and if we come home fifth and that's what the car had, that's what we get.

"We're not at the point yet where we can start trying to take a fifth-place car and make it second because we need the points. If we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to get there. We just need to be smart at how we do it."

After 22 Nationwide races have been completed this season, Hornish is the only driver in the top-five in points without a victory. Sadler leads the way with four wins, followed by Stenhouse with three. Dillon and Justin Allgaier, who is fifth in the standings, have one victory each. Allgaier took the checkered flag at Montreal.

Hornish has competed in six Sprint Cup races and two Nationwide events at Bristol. Like all other competitors, Hornish comes to Bristol this time not knowing what to expect after the track's concrete surface has been changed.

"This trip to Bristol will be interesting after they made changes to the track since the last time we were there," he said. "During the previous race there, we learned some things that should be useful this weekend, even with the different surface."

Hornish finished 13th at Bristol earlier this year.

Forty-five teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Food City 250.


GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma - Sonoma road course - Sonoma, Calif.

After a two-week break, the IZOD IndyCar Series resumes its schedule at the Sonoma, Calif. road course. Three races remain this season, and just 28 points separate the top-four drivers.

There have been recent modifications to the 2.31-mile Sonoma course, with changes made to turns seven, nine and eleven. Most IndyCar teams participated in a one-day test session there last week to familiarize themselves with the revised layout.

Team Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves were the fastest among the Chevrolet-powered cars, while Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti led the way among the cars utilizing Honda engines.

"I think the track is definitely going to promote more passing in turn seven," Power said. "The passing zone in seven is the best one, but if they changed turn eleven to modify the exit curbs a bit, it could be good as well. But good changes for sure."

Power comes to Northern California with only a five-point lead over Ryan Hunter-Reay from Andretti Autosport. Power reclaimed the top spot in the standings after his second-place finish at Mid-Ohio earlier this month. Hunter-Reay gave up the points lead after finishing 24th there. He suffered engine failure in the closing laps.

Castroneves is 26 points behind Power, while Dixon is 28 behind after his win at Mid-Ohio. Dixon had been 61 points out of the lead prior to his victory.

"It's insanely competitive," Power said. "You haven't seen anyone consistently win poles or win races. No one dominates this series. It just proves how tough it is and tight it is. You have to work on all the finer points of your driving just to be competitive."

Power has started on the pole and won at Sonoma the past two years. In 2011, Power led a 1-2-3 sweep of the podium for Penske. Castroneves finished second, while Ryan Briscoe placed third.

"I'm glad we got to practice on the new track," Castroneves said. "I believe the changes will be a benefit for the drivers and make it even more exciting for the fans. I can't wait to get back on the track this weekend, and hopefully we can repeat the good luck from before to get into victory lane."

Castroneves won there in 2008.

Hunter-Reay has finished no better than eighth in his five races at Sonoma.

"Our Sonoma test was a productive one, and we've found a direction, but we still have a lot of work to do over the race weekend if we are going to contend for a win," he said.

Dixon won at Sonoma in 2007 and then placed outside the top-10 the next two years there before finishing 2nd in 2010 and 5th last season.

"Sonoma has kind of been a bit of a thorn in my side. I don't know. We've had success there. We've won there. We've been on the podium many a times. But we struggled a little bit in qualifying."

After Sonoma, IndyCar will compete in Baltimore on Sept. 2 and then wrap up the season in Fontana, Calif. on Sept. 15.

Twenty-seven teams are on the entry list for the GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.