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NASCAR’s Sonoma 2013 road course ringers, analyzed

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There’s two road races for NASCAR this weekend, as different as wine and cheese. Literally.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its annual jaunt out west to Napa Valley and wine country, at Sonoma Raceway. The track’s also been known as Sears Point and Infineon Raceway, and when Infineon’s naming rights expired the track settled on Sonoma Raceway … which isn’t bad, but is to those who sought a return to its Sears Point roots.

Meanwhile, the NASCAR Nationwide Series heads up north to Elkhart Lake, Wis.’s Road America, which basically doubles as America’s “National Park of Speed.” It’s a 4-plus mile road course that is as well known for its track food – because who doesn’t love a Johnsonville brat and cheese? – as its racing.

We’ll look through the “ringers” in Sprint Cup’s Toyota/Save Mart 350K first, then hit the Nationwide folks in another post.

  • Justin Marks, No. 7 GoPro Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. It’s his series debut and the team’s road course setup has never been particularly strong in the past. That said, a top-20 finish would be an excellent result for team and driver.
  • Alex Kennedy, No. 19 MediaMaster/Dream Factory Toyota, Humphrey Smith Racing. Like Marks, will be Kennedy’s first start in Sprint Cup. The team – as the rest of the NASCAR community – has a heavy heart this week after Jason Leffler’s passing, as this was the team he drove for a couple weeks ago. For Kennedy, a clean race is the goal and perhaps a top-25 finish if the cards fall right.
  • Boris Said, No. 32 HendrickCars.com Ford, FAS Lane Racing. Said’s one of NASCAR’s oldest and most notable “ringers,” and is best known in recent years for these comments he made about Greg Biffle at Watkins Glen.  On-track, Said has 45 prior Sprint Cup starts and drove to an eighth-place finish with Frank Stoddard, now his team boss, as his crew chief at Sonoma in 2010. Miracles can happen but the best I’d expect for “Said Head nation” – if there is one – is a top-15.
  • Ron Fellows, No. 33 Canadian Tire Chevrolet, Circle Sport Racing. The popular Canadian missed the road course races a year ago and his last top-10 was a fourth-place at Watkins Glen in 2007. A top-10 for Fellows this week though, is not impossible.
  • Victor Gonzalez Jr., No. 36 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. The Puerto Rican will make his Sprint Cup debut in TBR’s second car. Has a handful of road course starts in the Nationwide ranks; like Marks, anything close to the top-20 would be respectable.
  • Jacques Villeneuve, No. 51 TAG Heuer Eyewear Chevrolet, Phoenix Racing. Get your popcorn ready. Villeneuve’s been entirely too aggressive in his Nationwide starts for Penske Racing, and he hasn’t driven a Sprint Cup race since 2010. Finch had “a rebel” in Kurt Busch in this car last year and Busch wheeled it to third – if Villeneuve (pictured above) keeps his head and doesn’t ram too many cars off the track, he could match that. Key word there is “if.”
  • Paulie Harraka, No. 52 HASA Pool Products Ford, Keselowski Racing. Frankly, Harraka has done nothing in NASCAR Camping World Trucks to warrant a step up to this level. He’ll make his debut but anything further than a start-and-park would surprise.
  • Tomy Drissi, No. 87 The Wolverine Movie – Corn, Nemechek Racing. A sports car veteran, Drissi’s driven Porsches, Corvettes and prototypes this year. He won’t set the world on fire but if he keeps it clean, he could make it to the top-25.

Ed Carpenter Racing reveals Preferred Freezer liveries for May

driver of the XXX during the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.
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With the calendar shifted over to May, Ed Carpenter Racing has taken the wraps off its pair of Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolets for the pair of Verizon IndyCar Series races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Josef Newgarden’s No. 21 car shifts from the 100th anniversary special commemorative livery for Fuzzy’s Vodka to a primarily blue with white trim PFS entry.

Meanwhile JR Hildebrand, who has had the PFS colors each of the last two years at Indy, will continue in the standard white with blue trim No. 6 car. Hildebrand will run at both the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Ocon set for Spanish GP practice run-out with Renault

Esteban Ocon (FRA) Renault Sport F1 Team Test Driver.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Tuesday 1st March 2016. Barcelona, Spain.
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Defending GP3 Series champion Esteban Ocon will take part in practice for the Spanish Grand Prix next month for Renault.

Ocon, 19, rose to attention in 2014 when he won the FIA F3 European Championship ahead of current Toro Rosso driver Max Verstappen.

The Frenchman took part in practice for Lotus in Abu Dhabi that year, and became a member of Mercedes’ development programme in 2015 en route to winning the GP3 title.

Ocon has been loaned to Renault for the 2016 season, with whom he works as reserve driver, and he will now take part in first practice for the Spanish Grand Prix on May 13.

McLaren now targeting regular points after double score in Sochi

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button are now targeting regular top-10 finishes after scoring their first points of the season in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.

McLaren arrived in Sochi with just a single point to its name so far in 2016 courtesy of Stoffel Vandoorne, who deputized for the injured Alonso in Bahrain.

Alonso and Button missed out on a place in Q3 on Saturday, but both ran trouble-free races en route to sixth and tenth place respectively.

The result marked not only the first points of the year for both drivers, but just the second time that McLaren had got both of its cars to the line inside the top 10 since it rekindled its partnership with Honda at the start of the 2015 Formula 1 season.

“We were lucky in Turns 2 and 3 on the opening lap – due to those accidents, we were able to gain some places for free,” Alonso said.

“But, as we saw last year, we can make a good start but then not be able to maintain those strong starting positions. This year, it’s different, we have the pace. To finish sixth, and set the fifth-fastest lap, shows that our car is still gaining pace.”

Alonso was left to run quite a lonely race to P6, but did take one lap late on to turn the engine up to full power and have some fun by stretching the legs of the McLaren MP4-31.

“The car felt good all race. Obviously, we were saving fuel at some points of the afternoon, but, on one lap, I just decided to go for it – to wake myself up a little bit! – and the lap-time showed the potential is there,” Alonso said.

“Finishing in the points should be our regular target from now on.”

Button managed to take P10 from Carlos Sainz Jr. late on to complete an impressive fightback and score his first point since last year’s United States Grand Prix.

“To get both cars home in the points, and at a track which we didn’t feel would really suit our package, is a fantastic result for the whole team,” Button said.

“As the pack dived into Turn 2, I had to back off because it was mayhem. The bollard at Turn 2 is the problem at the start because people are trying to fight through Turns 2 and 3. I think that needs some looking at.

“From there, I was disadvantaged, but the pace was in the car. After that, it was just a case of fighting my way back – which I really enjoyed. It’s difficult to overtake around here, but I was able to make a few moves and enjoy myself.

“I think the next race in Barcelona will be reasonably difficult for us, but there’s no reason not to look forward to targeting another points haul in Monaco.”

Magnussen scores breakthrough points for Renault in Russia

during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Kevin Magnussen believes that his charge to seventh place in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix was no less than Renault deserved as he score its first points since its return to Formula 1 as a constructor in 2016.

Renault last raced in F1 with its own team back in 2010 before taking over the Lotus operation at the end of last year.

The French manufacturer has said that 2016 is very much a year of rebuilding, yet the chiefs were known to be disappointed with its point-less start to the season.

Magnussen made the most of a messy start to charge from 17th on the grid to eventually finish the race seventh, marking Renault’s first F1 points as a constructor since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The result was also Magnussen’s first top 10 finish since the 2014 Brazilian Grand Prix when he finished ninth for McLaren.

“Feels good. It’s nice to finally get points on the board, and not even just one,” Magnussen told NBCSN after the race.

“I’m really happy. I think the whole team deserves it after the hard work and tough races. We have points on the board now, so it gives us a bit of a boost.”

Magnussen made up a number of positions on the first lap when a number of drivers got caught up in incidents before maintaining his placing throughout the race.

“First lap was really messy, we knew it would be difficult with something like that,” Magnussen said.

“Everyone was spinning and hitting the wall. I went outside all the front wings. But we made it up just before Turn 1 and 2, and gained it back into Turn 3. The guys in front didn’t finish.

“In the end of the day, a bit lucky but we made the best of it and we deserved.”