This Week in Auto Racing May 23 - 24
(SportsNetwork.com) - Sunday is a full day of racing, beginning with the Monaco Grand Prix followed by the Indianapolis 500 and then the Coca-Coca 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES
Indianapolis 500 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, Indiana
After weeks of preparation, 33 drivers are ready to embark in the IndyCar Series' premier race of the season -- the Indianapolis 500.
One driver in Sunday's Indy 500 will relish the thrill of victory after completing 200 laps around the historic 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the famed Borg-Warner Trophy, a bottle of milk and a payday of around $2.5 million await the race champion in Winner's Circle.
Five drivers competing in this year's Indy 500 have won this race in the past -- Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya. Castroneves is the only one of those five that has won it multiple times. His third and most recent victory in the Indy 500 happened in 2009.
One year ago, Hunter-Reay won this race for the first time in seven starts. He also became the first American to win it since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. But Hunter-Reay's victory came in the slimmest of margins, as he beat Castroneves to the finish line by just 0.06 seconds. It was the second-closest finish in the history of this event. Al Unser Jr. won the 1992 Indy 500 by only 0.043 seconds over Scott Goodyear.
Hunter-Reay, the driver of the No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda and 2012 IndyCar champion, will try to become the sixth competitor to win this race in consecutive years, joining Wilbur Shaw (1939-40), Mauri Rose (1947-48), Bill Vukovich (1953-54), Al Unser (1970-71) and Castroneves (2001-02). Hunter-Reay will start on the inside of row 6 in this year's event.
"I'm still as hungry as I've ever been," Hunter-Reay said of winning another Indy 500. "The one thing I do have is confidence around here that I can do it when the conditions are right and the car is to my liking."
In 2014, Castroneves came oh so close to winning the Indy 500 for the fourth time and placing himself in a tie with A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser for most victories in this event.
"Last year is yesterday's news," Castroneves said. "It's now a motivation to come back here and do better. We have another great car, another great opportunity and we've just got to go take it."
Castroneves, the driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet, will roll off from the middle of row 2.
Dixon claimed his second Indianapolis 500 pole with a four-lap average speed of 226.760 mph this past Sunday. The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver started on the pole and won this race in 2008, leading a total of 115 laps.
"If we could replicate 2008, that would be fantastic," Dixon said. "That's the goal. It's very hard to pull that off. There are 32 other very good competitors out there and a lot of stacked teams, a lot of teams that we've been running with in traffic and they're very, very good."
Two years ago, Kanaan won the Indy 500 for the first time in his 12th attempt. He drove for KV Racing Technology at the time. Kanaan is now in his second season with Ganassi. He will start on the inside of the second row, next to Castroneves.
The 2013 Indy 500 featured a record 68 lead changes among 14 drivers and moved at a pace of 187.433 mph, a record as well. Last year's race had 34 lead changes among 11 drivers.
Montoya's victory in this event occurred in 2000, driving for Ganassi at the time. He went on to compete in Formula One from 2001-06 and then NASCAR from 2007-13 before he returned to IndyCar competition with Penske in 2013. Montoya placed fifth in last year's race here. He will start on the outside of row 5 on Sunday.
Starting alongside Dixon will be Penske drivers Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, who joined the team after last season had concluded.
Power is the defending IndyCar champion. Two weeks ago, he won the second running of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course after starting on the pole for that event. Power has been superb at Indy this May, and he's hoping to end the month with his first victory in the Indy 500.
"It would be very cool to get the double," Power said. "I came into this month determined to have a good month, and it's working out."
Power will be competing in the Indy 500 for the eighth time. His best finish in this race is fifth, which occurred in 2009. He placed eighth in last year's event.
"I've got more focus on the 500 than I've ever had," he said. "I've won a (IndyCar) championship. I've kind of pushed that aside, and now the main focus to me is the 500.
"The first thing for me to accomplish was winning a championship just because it's the best driver over a whole season. It was a big deal for me to have won that. Now, it's just absolutely the 500. I really, really want to win that race."
On Thursday, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports announced that Ryan Briscoe will substitute for the injured James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Honda in this race. Hinchcliffe sustained serious injuries to his upper left thigh and pelvic area during an accident in Monday's practice session at IMS. He underwent emergency surgery at nearby IU Health Methodist Hospital to repair an artery.
Hinchcliffe was transferred out of the intensive car unit on Wednesday. He has been ruled out of competition for the foreseeable future.
Briscoe has nine previous starts in the Indy 500, with his best finish of fifth occurring in 2007 and '12. He placed 18th in the 2014 race, driving for Ganassi during the full IndyCar season.
"First and foremost, I feel absolutely terrible for Hinch, and I wish him the best and a speedy recovery," Briscoe said. "You sort of prepare for this race a year out. You visualize how you're going to go through practice, all the prep you're going to do, and something like this comes up and you throw that all out the window.
"I feel with my experience and the experience the team has, the experience that Hinch has had with (race engineer) Allen McDonald putting this car in really good condition for the race, I feel really confident that even with a few laps I'll be able to find my groove again."
Hinchcliffe had qualified on the outside of row 8. Briscoe will start in the middle of row 11 due to the driver change. Also on the final row, the 33rd position, will be James Davison, driving the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Davison did not participate in last weekend's qualifying due to another race obligation. Tristan Vautier substituted for him.
Sprint Cup Series
Coca-Cola 600 - Charlotte Motor Speedway - Concord, North Carolina
The Sprint Cup Series will run its longest race of the season -- the Coca-Cola 600 -- this Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
When the series competed at Charlotte one year ago, Jimmie Johnson surpassed NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for most wins at this 1.5-mile track with seven. It was also the fourth time Johnson scored a victory in the 600-mile race here.
Waltrip has the most wins in the 600-mile event with five.
Last year, Johnson had been winless in the first 11 races of the season before his victory at Charlotte. He started on the pole and led a race-high 164 laps, including the final nine.
Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and six-time Sprint Cup champion, has already won three races this season. All of them have occurred on a mile-and-a-half track -- Atlanta, Texas and Kansas.
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race took place at Charlotte last Saturday. Johnson holds the record for most victories in that event with four, but he finished 15th in it this year. He's hoping for a better result in the Coca-Cola 600.
"It's always great to come to a track that you have a great past at, great history at," Johnson said. "Unfortunately, the showing we had in the all-star race was less than stellar. The confidence we would normally walk in with has been diluted with lack of speed that we had then.
"We brought back a different car and certainly trying to do things differently with the set-up of the racecar. I think the 600-mile race has always been good for us. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and I seem to fix our race car as the night goes on, be aggressive with adjustments, chase the racetrack well and I do a nice job searching for line. The distance of the race doesn't bother me. I think we will have a strong night."
Earlier this week, Johnson's No. 48 team received a written warning from NASCAR for altering the side skirts on their car during the all-star race.
Prior to the start of the 2015 season, NASCAR made a rule modification that prohibited Sprint Cup teams from flaring the side skirts -- the sheet metal ahead of the rear tires on the car -- during pit stops in a race. It had the potential to improve air flow over the rear of the car, which would help increase speeds. The practice became widespread in Sprint Cup during the latter half of the 2014 season.
NASCAR will issue a warning to any team in their first offense of altering the side skirts and then assess penalties if there are repeat offenses.
"We were very shocked to even hear that there was an issue with the side skirts," Johnson said. "I think leaving the racetrack NASCAR was upset and thought there was a lot more intent and something going wrong with the side skirt being pulled out. Then as video became available and they looked through it and watched and saw what was done, it calmed down. We were shocked to hear there was an issue, and actually we had crash damage on the right-side of the car."
On Thursday night, Johnson qualified 13th for the Coca-Cola 600. Matt Kenseth claimed the pole position with a qualifying lap of 194.252 mph. Johnson was the highest finisher among the five Hendrick drivers in qualifying. Dale Earnhardt Jr. placed 15th, Jeff Gordon 18th, Chase Elliott 28th and Kasey Kahne 33rd.
Johnson won the 2003 rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 after starting 37th. Last October, he started 21st and finished 17th in the 500-mile race here -- the fifth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"This track is tricky," he said. "It's tough to get it right. Luckily, it's a long race, and if need be in the race, we will make big changes."
Sprint Cup teams will practice for the Coca-Cola 600 on Saturday -- a 55- minute session in the morning and then a 50-minute session in the afternoon.
Hisense 300 - Charlotte Motor Speedway - Concord, North Carolina
The Xfinity Series will run its 11th race of the season on Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
After winning last Sunday's race at Iowa, Chris Buescher took over the lead in the Xfinity championship standings. Buescher, the driver of the No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, holds an eight-point lead over Ty Dillon and a 31-point advantage over Chase Elliott, the defending series champion.
Buescher passed Elliott for the lead on the last restart with just two laps to go to win the 259-lap race at Iowa. He claimed his second career victory in the series. His maiden win occurred last August on the Mid-Ohio road course.
"It's been a good start to the season for us, for sure," Buescher said. "We have race cars that are coming to the racetrack a lot quicker than they were at the beginning of last year at this point in time, and we're in a much better points position. It's been really good, and we're having a lot of fun with it. We just have to keep the momentum up."
Buescher finished ninth in the spring race and sixth in the fall event at Charlotte during his 2014 rookie season in Xfinity.
For the first time, Charlotte will host the "Dash 4 Cash" qualifier, which will determine the four eligible drivers who will compete for the first of four $100,000 payouts throughout the season. The top-four finishing series regulars (those drivers competing for the Xfinity championship) from the 300- mile race here will qualify for the Dash 4 Cash event at Dover, scheduled for May 30.
The other Dash 4 Cash races this season are: Indianapolis (July 25), Bristol (Aug. 21) and Darlington (Sept. 5). This will be the seventh consecutive year of the bonus program in NASCAR's second-tier series. Nationwide Insurance had been the title sponsor of this series from 2008-14 before Comcast and its Xfinity brand secured sponsorship for this year.
Elliott Sadler, who is Buescher's teammate at Roush Fenway, has won the Dash 4 Cash award multiple times.
"We love the 'Dash 4 Cash,' and I can't thank Xfinity enough for bringing that back to our series," Sadler said. "I've been very fortunate in my Xfinity career to win a couple of these races. I actually won here in Charlotte a couple years ago that the fan won $100,000 from Florida, so that was a lot of fun."
Forty-two teams are on the entry list for the Hisense 300. Six Sprint Cup Series regulars are scheduled to compete in this race -- Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, who is the defending race winner.
Monaco Grand Prix - Circuit de Monaco - Monte Carlo, Monaco
Formula One will hold its most prestigious race of the season -- the Monaco Grand Prix -- on Sunday.
The Monaco GP is contested on the streets in world-famous Monte Carlo. It is one of the most difficult circuits on the F1 calendar. Overtaking here is virtually impossible. So qualifying is most important, with the pole sitter winning 10 of the last 11 races, including the previous six. Qualifying is scheduled for Saturday.
Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, who resides in the Principality of Monaco, has won this race from the pole the previous two years. If Rosberg can win it this weekend, he would become the fourth driver with three or more consecutive victories in the Monaco GP.
Ayrton Senna won it five straight times from 1989-93. Graham Hill first accomplished the feat from 1963-65. Alain Prost won the Monaco GP consecutively from 1984-86.
Two weeks ago, Rosberg claimed his first victory of the 2015 season in the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. He started on the pole and had a superb performance in that 66-lap race, crossing the finish line 17.5 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate and championship rival.
Rosberg trimmed Hamilton's lead in the F1 world championship standings from 27 points to 20 in Spain. Hamilton, the two-time and defending world champion, had won three of the first four grand prix this season -- Australia, China and Bahrain.
"We had a perfect weekend in Spain and, for me personally, it was good to close the gap a little in the points," Rosberg said. "Monaco is a home race for me, and it's strange to just walk or take a scooter to the racetrack, but also very cool to sleep in your own bed each night.
"The circuit itself has very unique setup characteristics, and we evaluated a few of those during the (post-race) test in Barcelona, as the last sector there has a lot of tight corners which are quite representative. The car felt very good, so I'm feeling optimistic and ready for this next race. If we can have everything running smoothly from the start, it should be a good weekend, so I'm really looking forward to it."
Two practice sessions for the Monaco GP were held on Thursday. In P1, Hamilton posted the quickest lap around this 3.34-kilometer, 19-turn street circuit in 1 minute, 18.750 seconds. He also topped the time charts in P2 with a lap in 1:17.192.
"I had a great first day here," Hamilton said. "Every year, it stuns me how fast we have to think out there, with so much information coming at you, and you have to be more reactive and agile than anywhere else. The target is always to get on the pace as quick as you can and to be very specific and precise in the set-up changes you make, so you don't go down the wrong path. "The balance (Thursday) was not far off, so we have been tuning that with our program. There are still some areas to improve on."
The second practice session was disrupted by rain, giving teams little time on the track.
Rosberg finished second in P2, 0.74 seconds behind Hamilton, and placed ninth in P1.
"We are very quick here again, so I'm quite confident for this weekend," Rosberg said. "I didn't get it all together (in the first two practice sessions), so the next practice session on Saturday morning will be very important."
Seventeen-year-old Max Verstappen from Toro Rosso was a surprise in P1, posting the second quickest lap, only 0.149 seconds behind Hamilton. In P2, Verstappen placed seventh.
"It was a good day, "Verstappen said. "I built it up slowly in the first practice because it was all new for me, but I felt really good in the car immediately. This gave me a lot of confidence and to finish the morning session in P2 made me feel great."