This Week in Auto Racing March 22 - 24
Fontana, CA – The NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series head out west again to Auto Club Speedway. The IZOD IndyCar Series kicks off its season in St. Petersburg, Fla. And Formula One travels to Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Sprint Cup Series
Auto Club 400 - Auto Club Speedway - Fontana, Calif.
Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski is off to a great start this season, and he's hoping his momentum will continue this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California.
Keselowski, who drives the No. 2 Ford for Penske Racing, is the only competitor who has finished among the top-five in the first four races this year. He placed fourth at Daytona and Phoenix and then third at Las Vegas and Bristol. Keselowski has also led a lap in each one of those races.
He currently holds a nine-point lead over Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a 15-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson, who dropped from the top spot in the standings after his 22nd-place finish at Bristol. Earnhardt has no worse than seventh this season.
"We're off to my best start ever, and that's really cool," Keselowski said. "We can't keep our feet still. We know that Kyle (Busch) and Jimmie (Johnson) are going to continue to make their cars better. We have to keep digging and push on our stuff too."
Keselowski's start is the best for a driver in the series since Johnson began the 2005 season with four straight top-five finishes. A fifth consecutive top- five for Keselowski would be the first time that feat has been accomplished since 1998 with Rusty Wallace, who ironically drove the No. 2 car for Penske at the time.
Keselowski has not performed well in past Sprint Cup races at California, finishing no better than 18th in his four starts here. He's had good finishes in Nationwide Series events at this track, placing no worse than 10th in his last five attempts.
"We've run really well with the Nationwide car at Auto Club Speedway over the last couple of years," he said. "We don't yet have a win to show for it, but it gives me a boost of confidence, because Fontana has been one of the tougher tracks for me over the years."
Kasey Kahne has also been hot lately. Kahne began the season with a 36th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and then 19th at Phoenix but has rebounded nicely since then. He finished second at Las Vegas after leading the most laps. This past Sunday, he won at Bristol for the first time.
Kahne is presently seventh in the point standings. When the series came to Fontana one year ago, he sat 32nd in points. It was his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne went on to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship after winning two races during the regular season (Charlotte and New Hampshire).
"The championship is still a long ways away, but I think we're off to a much better start than last year," he said. "I feel good about that. We got a little behind at the start of (this) season and fought back clearly in the last two weeks and got back to a good spot."
This will be the first time NASCAR's new Sprint Cup car, the Gen-6, will race on a two-mile oval. The car has been getting much better reviews the past couple of weeks. It ran on a short track last week at Bristol, with Kyle Busch breaking a decade-old track qualifying record there.
"I think this new car is going to create a better race at (Fontana), a more aggressive race," Kahne said. "As slippery as Auto Club is, it's just going to make it even a little better for us."
With the Gen-6 having more downforce and better grip than the previous race car, which was used the last six seasons, it's likely we'll see record speeds posted at Auto Club Speedway.
"I think it's going to be a fun race," Johnson said. "We have a lot of racetrack to race on. We're all getting smarter about the cars."
Johnson, who hails from nearby El Cajon, Calif., has the most wins at this track with five. Jeff Gordon, who is Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, and Matt Kenseth, in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, have three victories each here.
Tony Stewart has won two of the last three races at this track, including a victory in last year's rain-shortened event. Heavy precipitation after 129 of 200 laps were completed forced NASCAR officials to call the race. It was the first time a Sprint Cup event here was cut short due to inclement weather.
Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Auto Club 400.
Royal Purple 300 - Auto Club Speedway - Fontana, Calif.
Joe Gibbs Racing has been unstoppable in Nationwide Series competition at Auto Club Speedway for the last five years.
One of JGR's drivers has won the previous eight Nationwide races at this two- mile racetrack. Kyle Busch holds the record for most wins in the series here with five. All of Busch's victories have come within the past seven races.
Joey Logano won at California in October 2009 and again in March 2012. Logano drove a Nationwide car for JGR from 2008-12. Tony Stewart took the checkered flag for the spring race here in 2008 when he was driving for Gibbs.
Driving the No. 54 Toyota for JGR, Busch has won two of the first four Nationwide races this year. Crew chief Adam Stevens is guiding Busch's efforts in the series. Stevens served as Logano's crew chief when Logano won at California one year ago.
"Having Adam to work with as a crew chief, he's really good," Busch said. "He's learned from a lot of good peers at Joe Gibbs Racing and under some good tutelage. I think it pays dividends into his hands and where he can go in the future too. He has done a good job building this team, and our communication and how we work together, it's paying off."
While Busch is running a limited Nationwide schedule, Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler are driving in the series full-time for JGR this season. Vickers sits fifth in the point standing after back-to-back third-place finishes at Las Vegas and Bristol.
Sadler came to Bristol tied for second in points, but after finishing 36th, he dropped to 10th in the rankings. He suffered engine failure early in the race.
"Last week at Bristol was definitely disappointing," Sadler said. "We're ready to get back at it in California. I really like this track, because it's pretty wide and fast. I won here in 2004 in the Sprint Cup Series, and I'm looking forward to getting back there this weekend."
Brad Keselowski will join Busch as those Sprint Cup regulars competing in this race.
Forty-two teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Royal Purple 300.
IZOD INDYCAR SERIES
Honda GP of St. Petersburg - Streets of St. Petersburg - St. Petersburg, Fla.
The 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series gets underway this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, and so does Ryan Hunter-Reay's quest for a second consecutive championship.
Winning a series-high four races last year, Hunter-Reay edged Will Power for the IndyCar title by just three points. He had trailed Power by 36 points with two races go.
Hunter-Reay began the 2012 season with a third-place finish at St. Pete. It wasn't until midway through the 15-race calendar that he became a perennial threat for the championship. The Andretti Autosport driver moved into the title mix when he won three races in a row -- Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto.
"You need to get off to a good start to get the team on the right track and get the momentum going and get the energy, the right energy, going to for the team," Hunter-Reay said. "No better race to do it than the first one. We will look to definitely take that first step this weekend."
This year's race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Pete street circuit has been increased from 100 laps to 110. IndyCar also changed the race distances for Long Beach, Calif. (April 21), Milwaukee (June 15) and Mid-Ohio (Aug. 4). The sanctioning body modified the length of those races to discourage fuel-mileage racing and therefore better match traditional fuel windows.
"I think it's going to depend on the right strategy," Hunter-Reay said. "St. Pete always seems to be a little bit of a crapshoot on strategy and where you end up at the end, what you end up hitting. And weather can be a big factor.
"So it's going to keep us on our toes. It always does, this race, and it should be an exciting one with that front straight long, big, wide airport runway, big passing zone. Bottom line is it will be a good show as we have been putting on for the past few seasons, and I think it will come down to the last few laps."
The winner at St. Petersburg has gone on to win the IndyCar championship twice in the eight-year history of this race. Dan Wheldon did it in 2005, the inaugural year of the event, and Dario Franchitti did so in 2011.
Helio Castroneves is the only driver with multiple victories at St. Pete. Castroneves has won there three time, including a victory last year.
In the 2012 IndyCar season-opening event at St. Pete, Castroneves grabbed the lead from J.R. Hildebrand with 27 laps to and then ran in front from there to snap an 18-race winless streak in the series.
"It's good to be back in the race car after such a long offseason for us," Castroneves said. "You see people getting ready and preparing themselves, and it's just becoming very rushed, especially when you have all of six months off. I'm very excited to go to St. Pete and defend my win from last year."
Last year's season-opener marked the debut of IndyCar's new "DW12" car, which was named in honor Wheldon, who suffered life-ending injuries during a horrific 15-car crash in October 2011 at Las Vegas. The former series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner had resided in St. Petersburg.
In what was the first race since Wheldon's death, Castroneves paid tribute to his late-friend when, after taking the checkered flag, he got out of his car in turn 10, which was named "Dan Wheldon Way." Castroneves did his trademark climbing of the fence to salute the fans in that area of the racetrack. He then walked over to the other side of the turn and climbed another fence to pat a street sign in honor of Wheldon.
"The celebration was even better, having the Dan Wheldon sign in respect over there, and to celebrate, it was a memorable coincidence," Castroneves recalled. "It was just really great to remember him the way he lived, and not what happened the year before. It was a very emotional, crazy win."
Will Power, who is Castroneves' teammate at Team Penske, has claimed the pole position at St. Pete the past three years. He won this race in 2010 and then finished second here in 2011 before his seventh-place run in last year's event.
"It's a street course, and I really just enjoy it," Power said. "There's nothing that I would say suits me more than any other track. I go there and always have fun. That's the main thing."
Twenty-five teams are entered for the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Malaysian Grand Prix - Sepang International Circuit - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
After the first grand prix of the season this past weekend in Melbourne, Australia, it appears that Kimi Raikkonen from Lotus is a serious contender for this year's Formula One world championship.
Raikkonen, who started seventh, capitalized on a two-stop strategy while his rivals pitted three times for tires during the 58-lap Australian Grand Prix. Raikkonen drove the final 24 laps around the 3.3-mile Albert Park circuit on old tires. He crossed the finish line 12.4 seconds ahead of Fernando Alonso from Ferrari. Three-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull was 22.3 seconds behind in third.
F1 now heads to Malaysia, where Raikkonen has won twice. His first career grand prix victory came in the 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix. The Finn also won it in 2008.
"Malaysia has been good and bad for me in the past," Raikkonen said. "I've had a few bad races there, but I've also won at the circuit, including my first grand prix victory, so it's nice to go back to where it all began with my first win."
As always, the weather conditions in Malaysia will be a factor. Drivers must deal with the heat and humidity. Heavy downpours frequently occur at Sepang Circuit.
Teams are faced with tough conditions for engines and tires. The heat and Sepang's abrasive track surface make tire wear a problem. The engines are heavily stressed from the high air temperatures as well.
"I don't enjoy the heat and the humidity of the place, but the circuit is nice so, we know how it's going to be more or less here," Raikkonen said. "It usually gives a good race, and that's the main thing. Hopefully, we can have another good weekend and score good points."
Last year's Malaysian GP was stopped for nearly one hour due to a torrential downpour. Moments before the start of the 56-lap race, precipitation began falling on the 3.44-mile circuit. All drivers began with intermediate tires. After the fifth lap, race officials deployed the safety car for the rain. The event then came to a halt a few laps later. Just after pitting for a new set of tires, Alonso took over the lead, while Sergio Perez, who drove for Sauber during the 2012 season, moved into second by lap 17. Alonso and Perez ran in that order from there on.
Alonso is scheduled to participate in his 200th grand prix. The Spaniard has won the Malaysian GP with three different teams -- Renault (2005), McLaren (2007) and Ferrari (2012).
Can Alonso claim his fourth Malaysian GP win on Sunday?
"In Australia, everything went fine for us, and we showed we have good potential," Alonso said. "However, it's true that the Australian circuit is strange and unusual. That means this weekend we will be looking for a little bit of confirmation that the car is performing well. After experiencing positive feelings in winter testing and then in Australia, this weekend is a very real test for us."
Alonso is a two-time F1 world champion (2005-06). He has scored 30 wins, 57 podium finishes and 22 poles in 199 grand prix.