Alex Kennedy attempts Sprint Cup debut, will drive Jason Leffler’s car

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There may be a new name on the 43-car starting grid of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway.

That is if New Mexico native Alex Kennedy manages to qualify the No. 19 MediaMaster/Dream Factory Toyota on the twisting 12-turn, 1.99-mile road course.

Driving for Humphrey Smith Racing, Kennedy, 21, hopes to make the 43-car field and potentially trade paint with some of the same drivers he’s watched while growing up, like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It will be an uphill battle for Kennedy to make the race, though. He’s competed in just 14 Nationwide Series races from 2010 to 2012 (he has not started a race in NNS this season), with his best finish being 15th in last year’s road course race at Montreal. Interestingly, nine of those 14 starts have been on road courses, including Road America and Watkins Glen.

Still, he has familiarity with Sonoma, having raced there at the age of 12 — can you believe it’s been almost a decade, Alex? — in several Legends Car races.

He also raced there twice in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, including an 11th-place finish in 2008 — at the age of 16, no less.

Kennedy will have some added inspiration and motivation to make Sunday’s race: he’ll be driving the same car that the late Jason Leffler drove in the June 9 Sprint Cup race at Pocono. Leffler was tragically killed in a New Jersey dirt track accident three days later.

Like many of his racing counterparts, Kennedy’s Toyota will have a “Lefturn” decal on the right side door of his ride as a tribute to Leffler.

March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

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