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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.

Advantage Rosberg as F1 title fight resumes at stormy Sepang

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during previews for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 29, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Rainy weather may be the only thing that can stop Mercedes from clinching a third straight Formula One constructors’ title at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, as new championship leader Nico Rosberg seeks to capitalize on his current edge over teammate Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes has won all but one race this year – when the teammates took each other out in a crash – and is now poised to seal the team championship with five races to spare. It needs to score only three points more than closest rival Red Bull, while preventing Ferrari from outscoring Mercedes by 22 points or more, in order to clinch the title.

Thunderstorms are forecast throughout the race weekend, and the Malaysian race and qualifying have a history of being hit by heavy rain. That may give some encouragement to Red Bull and Ferrari that they can challenge Mercedes.

A resurfacing of the track will complicate matters for all teams, as their data from previous years on tire degradation will be obsolete.

Rosberg has won the past three races to turn a 19-point deficit to Hamilton into an eight-point lead. The tension between the teammates is spilling over from the track.

“We are pushing each other very hard on the race track and even off the race track,” Rosberg said Thursday. “It’s a great battle and everything counts, in many areas.”

The German has never won on the sweeping turns and long straights of Sepang, but that should not be considered much of an omen, as he has recorded first-ever victories at five other circuits this season.

Hamilton’s campaign has taken a turn for the worse after his own hat-trick of race wins in mid-season.

“I’ve had ups and downs. I’ve had tough runs and I’ve had good runs, and it’s not particularly any different to any of those,” Hamilton said of the latest reversal of fortunes. “It’s all about how you handle it, how you deal with it.”

His handling of it was commendable in the previous race in Singapore as he took a fighting third place despite a weekend of technical setbacks.

However, Hamilton hinted at some discontent Thursday. Asked about alterations to the set-up of the car in recent races, he said: “If something changes when it doesn’t need to be changed, it can have all sorts of effects.”

“There’s other things in the background which they (the team) can apply more effort to, but that’s internal stuff,” he added.

Team management was staying neutral in the title fight between the Mercedes pair, and Hamilton said there had been no efforts to buoy his spirts following the recent championship turnaround.

“The team doesn’t have anything to say to me because we’re embarking on the team championship, which is what they care about. Me and the (drivers’) world championship are not really their priority in a sense.”

McLaren driver Jenson Button will make his 300th race start this weekend, joining Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello as the only men to reach that milestone.

“When I started in 2000, I remember speaking to my Dad, and he said, ‘How long do you think you’ll race for?’ and I said, ‘I’ll be done by the time I’m 30, and here I am at 36,'” Button said. “It definitely sucks you in, Formula One, and it doesn’t let go for a long time.”

Ed Carpenter Racing confirms Newgarden departure for 2017

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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Ed Carpenter Racing has provided the first official domino of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series silly season, confirming on Thursday that Josef Newgarden will not be back with the team for 2017. Carpenter had Newgarden under contract through Sept. 28 and since that passed, now frees him up to leave.

“While it’s disappointing that Josef will not be returning, it’s also not a total surprise after all of the speculation the past few weeks,” team owner Ed Carpenter said in a release.

“I wish Josef the best in his future endeavors, but also remain focused on ECR’s continued success. We are positioned well moving into 2017 and I have total confidence that we will continue to deliver the high level of performance we expect as a team.”

This doesn’t outright confirm Newgarden will shift to Team Penske, but it makes it a near certain possibility to follow the rumors the last few weeks and reported on by NBCSN contributor Robin Miller for RACER.com.

Newgarden leaves Carpenter’s team after a net five years, the first five of his IndyCar career. He was initially with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for three years from 2012 to 2014, then did separate one-year extensions under the merged CFH Racing banner in 2015 and with the rebranded Ed Carpenter Racing for 2016, with Fisher and Wink Hartman no longer part of the ECR ownership structure.

Carpenter will continue to drive the team’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on ovals in 2017, with the team yet to determine the next round of plans for the No. 20 car on road and street courses (Spencer Pigot drove this year) and a full-time replacement for Newgarden in the No. 21 car.

Brazil GP organizers surprised with FIA doubts on 2017 race

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 15:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP race into the second corner followed by the rest of the field during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 15, 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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SAO PAULO (AP) Organizers of the Brazilian Grand Prix say they are surprised that motor sport’s governing body has not confirmed the race at the Interlagos track for the 2017 Formula One calendar.

In a provisional calendar for 2017 published earlier Wednesday, the FIA put an asterisk indicating “subject to confirmation” for the Brazilian GP, scheduled for Nov. 12.

In a statement, the organizers of the Sao Paulo race said they were “surprised on Wednesday with the publication of the provisional calendar”, adding that “there is a valid contract until 2020” and that it would be rigorously complied with “as it always has in these 45 years.”

Brazil first hosted Formula One in 1972, although the race did not count for that year’s world championship. It will stage the penultimate race of this season on Nov. 13.

The races in Canada, in June, and in Germany, in July, are also marked as to be confirmed for next year.

Ericsson escapes serious injury after hitting ‘big chicken’ while cycling

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden and Sauber F1 walks in the Paddock before practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson escaped serious injury after hitting a “big chicken” at high speed while cycling in Thailand earlier this week.

Sauber Formula 1 driver Ericsson spent a week in Thailand on a training camp between the races in Singapore and Malaysia, the latter being held this weekend in Sepang.

The Swede posted pictures on Twitter earlier this week showing his injuries, appearing to be cuts and bruising to his left arm and right hand.