Brian Vickers to attempt grueling dual road-course weekend

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Brian Vickers loves to race, any time, anywhere. He also loves to travel.

He’ll get more than his share of both this weekend, as he’s the only driver who will attempt to race in Saturday’s Nationwide Series Johnsonville Sausage 200 (no, we’re not making that name up) at Road America and then double up by competing in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

That’s 202 miles around the 4.05-mile Road America layout in the heart of Wisconsin’s Dairyland, the longest road course in NASCAR, and another 219 miles (350 kilometers, hence the name) at Sonoma’s 1.99-mile track in California’s wine country, the shortest road course in NASCAR competition.

Grand total: 421 miles of racing — barring any green-white-checker finishes that may take one or both races into overtime.

That’s the easy part.

There’s another 2,180 miles that Vickers must traverse to get from Road America to Sonoma. Let’s also not forget the 950 miles from Charlotte to Road America, and then the roughly 2,750 miles from Sonoma back to North Carolina.

Add it all up, between racing and flying and Vickers will cover approximately 6,300 miles in a race car and airplane.

Just reading that distance is enough to tire someone out, let alone go through it like Vickers will.

“I’m looking forward to both of them,” Vickers said on NASCAR’s weekly media conference call Tuesday. “It’s going to take a little different mentality and technique going from Road America which is a little bit faster place to Sonoma which is a slower, more technical road race, but I’m up for the challenge and excited.”

It will be the first time racing at Road America for Vickers, while he’s raced seven times previously at Sonoma. Not only did he win the pole there in 2009, he had his best career finish there last year, with a strong fourth-place showing.

Vickers has to be at Road America: the driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing is competing on a full-time basis and for the championship in the Nationwide Series. Sonoma is an added bonus, a track he just loves to run on. Even though Jason Bowles will qualify the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota for Vickers in California, because of the driver change Vickers will have to start Sunday’s race from the back of the pack.

“Obviously missing qualifying at Sonoma and starting last is not going to help, but there are benefits,” Vickers said. “I think there’s opportunities at Sonoma to get to do a little bit different pit strategy. Knowing that you don’t really have track position to protect kind of can create opportunities. We’ve been there in the past where we’ve had either bad qualifying or something happened during the race and we had to come in and pit or penalties on pit road, like last year we had the penalty on pit road and had to go to the back and we worked our way back up to fourth, but as much as it hurt us, it also created opportunities.”

Even though its his first time on Road America’s 14-turn serpentine track (Sonoma has only 12 turns), Vickers hopes a strong finish will help him make a significant climb back upward in the Nationwide standings. After being ranked as high as third, wrecks in his last two races have plummeted Vickers to 10th in the series.

“Obviously setting up for a track that long, you have a lot of give and take, right?” Vickers said. “You get a little bit here but you give up a little bit here when you make a change in the setup. The longer the track, the worse that is.

“I would say the hardest thing for myself and I think a lot of guys going into this weekend is that we’ve never seen it. Most of the guys have not raced there, there’s a few that have. I believe maybe Sam Hornish has run there in other cars, Max Papis and a few guys, but most guys have not, including myself, and the hardest part is going to be just learning a new four‑mile race track.”

He’ll get to practice there Friday and qualify Saturday morning before Saturday afternoon’s race. With a 5:20 pm ET start, the field will have to hustle to the finish line: Road America does not have lights.

According to NASCAR, Vickers and 13 other drivers will be first-timers at Road America. The others are A.J. Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, James Buescher, Landon Cassill, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Mike Harmon (if NASCAR allows him to race after surrendering for arrest late Monday on burglary and theft charges), Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Johnny O’Connell, Travis Pastrana, Regan Smith, Dexter Stacey and Derek White.

Not to be a Debby Downer, but for Vickers’ sake let’s hope there’s no rain delays or postponements at either place. It was just two weeks ago that Joey Logano tried to do a Saturday-Sunday twinbill, competing in a Saturday night Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway and then a Sunday afternoon matinee race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

While Logano had the best intentions, Mother Nature had other plans. The Iowa race was eventually postponed to Sunday morning due to rain, so Logano had to fly back to Pocono in the middle of the night. Ryan Blaney filled in for him at Iowa that Sunday morning, finishing ninth — very respectable given it was Blaney’s first Nationwide race of the season, and that he was thrown into it literally at the last minute.

As for Logano, the redeye flight didn’t seem to impact his Pocono performance too much: he finished 10th. Vickers can only hope for so much.

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.