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.

Here are the starting times for 2020 NTT IndyCar Series action on NBC and NBCSN

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Another important tidbit for NTT IndyCar Series fans is out as INDYCAR and NBC announced starting times for the 2020 season. The full television schedule is also included.

There are different starting times at four races in 2020 from 2019. Those include the March 15 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at Circuit of the Americas on April 26, a later starting time for the Saturday night race at Iowa Speedway on July 18 on NBCSN

INDYCAR released the green flag times today for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season that features starting time shifts at four races – St. Petersburg, Circuit of The Americas, Iowa and Mid-Ohio – and the anticipated evening return to Richmond Raceway.

Those four returning races represent the only significant green flag start time changes from a year ago in the 17-race 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, beginning with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg scheduled for Sunday, March 15.

The August 16 Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio will be moved to an earlier starting time and will be broadcast on NBC. Previously, the race was scheduled for 4:05 p.m., but has been changed to a 12:45 p.m. Eastern Time green flag.

INDYCAR’s return to Richmond Raceway on Saturday, June 27 will begin at 8:15 p.m. ET. That is the only new event on the schedule.

Detailed broadcast information for the entire season will be announced at a later date.

Here are the notable changes to the starting times on the schedule:

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which began at 1:40 p.m. ET this past season, will now have a 3:30 p.m. green flag. The race on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., will be celebrating its 10thanniversary as the series’ season opener and be televised on NBC Sports Network.

The AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at Circuit of The Americas on Sunday, April 26, will have a similar shift, moving from a 1:43 p.m. ET green flag this past season to 4:10 p.m. (3:10 p.m. local) in 2020. The permanent road course in Austin, Texas, will play host to the fourth race of the season and be broadcast on NBCSN.

The Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway, set for Saturday, July 18, on NBCSN, will be better accommodated for an evening race under the lights with the green flag moving from 7:15 p.m. ET to 9 p.m. (8 p.m. local).

“The return of a night race for INDYCAR at Iowa Speedway is exciting news for our race fans, sponsors, and the entire region,” Iowa Speedway President David Hyatt said. “The cars look great under the lights, and the competition should be even more fierce given what should be cooler conditions. Our track provides some of the best racing you’ll see anywhere, which will be good for attendance. This will be a can’t-miss weekend for all race fans.”

The return to a true night race at Iowa was the result of fans requesting it. The race will begin at 8:00 p.m. CT on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. And for fans and drivers, it is nostalgic, hearkening back to the first race many of them experienced … a night race on a short track.

The series hasn’t held a race that began after dusk at Iowa Speedway since 2015, and drivers and fans are welcoming it. Not only does it look more vibrant — and create sparks as cars bottom out — it also makes for better racing. Tires grip better when the track is cooler. Fans also avoid sweltering conditions during summer afternoons.

The Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Sunday, Aug. 16, will be the only race among the four that moves to an earlier start time. The race, which had a 4:05 p.m. ET start this past season, will shift to a 12:45 p.m. green flag in 2020 and be televised on NBC.

The NTT IndyCar Series heads to Richmond Raceway – the only new addition on the 2020 schedule – for the 11th race of the season on Saturday, June 27. The field will take the green flag at 8:15 ET for the start of the first Indy car race at the .75-mile oval since 2009. The race will be broadcast on NBCSN.