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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.

Wehrlein “feels ready” for job of replacing Rosberg, if he gets seat

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 20:  (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP poses for a portrait during day three of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 21, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Pascal Wehrlein is the potential lynchpin in the race to replace Nico Rosberg, now fully underway after the shock news of the 2016 World Champion’s decision to retire has come down and now set in.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve driver and Manor race driver from this season did a thoroughly good – if not outstanding – job in his first full season in Formula 1 and could well be the pick to replace Rosberg alongside Lewis Hamilton next season.

Wehrlein is confident in his ability and expressed his candidacy for the job while accepting rookie-of-the-year honors at last night’s Autosport Awards.

“One season in Formula 1 of course is not a lot, but I feel ready for the job,” Wehrlein said. “I feel confident enough.

“Now the decision is on the bosses. I guess Toto’s (Wolff) phone is overheating since Friday! I respect that process and that they want to go to the best option.”

Pushed a bit further, Wehrlein also offered a sneaky sense of humor in noting how much testing he’s already done on a modified chassis with Pirelli’s new-for-2017 tires.

“I’ve done the most days with 2017 tires. It’s very important to have that experience,” he laughed.

Wehrlein could well get the nod by way of his availability. However if Mercedes opts to buy out another tied-down driver’s contract, it could well end up that Wehrlein might be placed elsewhere on the grid.

Despite losing out on the Force India seat to fellow Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon, Wehrlein’s stock has never been higher.

Ryan Norman confirmed for Andretti Indy Lights program

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As NBC Sports reported over the weekend, Ryan Norman has been confirmed as third driver for Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program in 2017.

Norman joins the previously announced Dalton Kellett (No. 28 K-LINE Insulators, USA Mazda) and Nico Jamin (No. 27 Synova Mazda). Norman, out of Cleveland, won this year’s Atlantic Championship and will drive the No. 48 Flip Side Mazda. He’s tested for the team this winter.

“I’m very excited to join Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Indy Lights Season,” said Norman. “With their great success in IndyCar and Indy Lights, it is the perfect environment for me to learn and grow as a driver. I want to thank Michael Andretti and the rest of the team for this wonderful opportunity and I hope to bring great results to the team this coming year.”

“We have been following Ryan’s achievements in Formula Atlantic and feel he will do equally well, if not better, in Indy Lights,” J-F Thormann, President of Andretti Autosport, added. “Ryan has tested for the team several times this offseason and has impressed us with how quickly he has adapted to the car. We are looking forward to seeing what the 2017 season has in store for us and are thrilled to have three of our four Indy Lights entries announced.”

As noted by Thormann above, the team has confirmed four Indy Lights entries for 2017. From what we’ve heard, the fourth driver could well be an intriguing young American.

Rainguard Water Sealers signs on as Texas IndyCar title sponsor

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Alexander Rossi driver of the #98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda leads Helio Castroneves driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Cue the jokes about how Texas Motor Speedway’s new Verizon IndyCar Series race title sponsor, Rainguard Water Sealers, was a year late, as track drying delays from rain helped postpone this year’s race from June to August.

But the new title sponsor is on board for the next three years, through whatever weather exists at TMS. Which is a good thing, because it confirms both the race and the sponsor through 2019.

“We extremely pleased to have Texas Motor Speedway and ‘America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race’ serve as the initial sponsorship venture into motorsports and sports in general for Rainguard Water Sealers,” Eddie Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway president, said in a release. “We look forward to providing Rainguard with an exceptional first experience as an entitlement sponsor and help the company attain their goals through this sponsorship agreement.”

Firestone has been the race’s title sponsor of what is now the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 since 2010. Prior to that, Bombardier Learjet sponsored the race from 2005 to 2009, when Texas dropped from having two races on the annual IndyCar calendar down to one.

Rainguard was founded in 1969 as a manufacturer of architectural grade coatings used in the construction industry, and developed speciality sealer products starting in 2010.

French Grand Prix return made official for 2018

Ivan Capelli driver of the #16 Leyton House Racing Leyton House CG901 Judd celebrates his and the teams second place finish at the French Grand Prix on 8 July 1990 at the Circuit Paul Ricard in Le Castellet, France (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)
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After a decade off the Formula 1 calendar, the French Grand Prix has been formally confirmed to return in 2018. The race was confirmed at a press conference in France on Monday, after reports emerged late last week it was coming back.

The race, which was at Circuit de Nevers in Magny-Cours from the 1990s through to the most recent race there in 2008, will be held at Circuit Paul Ricard (Le Castellet) instead. Paul Ricard though was the site host for 14 races between 1971 and 1990.

Christian Estrosi, the president of the regional authority of Provence and the Cote d’Azur, announced the deal for the race which is likely to be held in late July. That time frame had featured the German Grand Prix along withe Hungarian Grand Prix.

“Losing the grand prix was a true scar for our country,” Estrosi said at the Automobile Club de France, via the ACO. “I can today make the firm and definitive announcement that the Grand Prix de France will return at the Paul Ricard circuit as soon as the 2018 summer.”

Estrosi paid tribute to the late driver Jules Bianchi, who died last year following a long battle to recover from major head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

“I’m dedicating this big return to my friend Jules,” Estrosi said. “My thoughts are with his family.”

Jean Todt, the president of motorsports’ world governing body, said the return of the French GP is an “enormous satisfaction” for FIA.

The 2017 calendar was only just confirmed following the latest meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council last week, with a drop to 20 races following the German race’s departure.

With the French Grand Prix back on, that would kick the number of races back up to 21 for 2018 unless another shoe drops and another race falls back off the calendar instead. Provided Germany would come back in 2018 at Hockenheim, that could add another wrinkle to the 2018 calendar planning.

Associated Press contributed to this report