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.

F1: Lewis Hamilton qualifies No. 1 for U.S. Grand Prix, on verge of winning 5th title

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Lewis Hamilton took a big step toward earning his fifth Formula One championship on Saturday, qualifying No. 1 for Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Hamilton and his Mercedes have won five of the previous six U.S. Grand Prix’s held at COTA, including the last four races there.

The Great Britain native comes into Sunday’s race leading the F1 point standings and is seeking to tie Juan Manuel Fangio for second-most F1 career championships. Michael Schumacher has the most with seven crowns.

Sebastian Vettel is Hamilton’s sole remaining challenger for the title, trailing Hamilton by 67 points with four races to go, including Sunday’s race.

Vettel must win Sunday’s race or finish within seven points of Hamilton to prevent the latter from winning the title and pushing a possible clinching scenario to next week in Mexico.

Vettel qualified second Saturday, but due to a red-flag three-position grid penalty sustained during Friday’s morning practice, will start fifth on Sunday’s grid.

As a result of Vettel’s penalty, Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen will start alongside Hamilton on the front row for Sunday’s race.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Vallteri Bottas, will start third, while Daniel Ricciardo will start fourth.

Rounding out the top 10 were Esteban Ocon, Nico Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean, Charles Leclerc and Sergio Perez.

Here’s how qualifying played out:

POS NO DRIVER CAR Q1 Q2 Q3 LAPS
1 44 Lewis Hamilton MERCEDES 1:34.130 1:33.480 1:32.237 20
2 5 Sebastian Vettel FERRARI 1:34.569 1:33.079 1:32.298 18
3 7 Kimi Räikkönen FERRARI 1:34.703 1:32.884 1:32.307 15
4 77 Valtteri Bottas MERCEDES 1:34.518 1:33.702 1:32.616 17
5 3 Daniel Ricciardo RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER 1:34.755 1:34.185 1:33.494 14
6 31 Esteban Ocon FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 1:34.876 1:34.522 1:34.145 18
7 27 Nico Hulkenberg RENAULT 1:34.932 1:34.564 1:34.215 18
8 8 RomainGrosjean HAAS FERRARI 1:34.892 1:34.419 1:34.250 17
9 16 Charles Leclerc SAUBER FERRARI 1:35.069 1:34.255 1:34.420 17
10 11 Sergio Perez FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 1:35.193 1:34.525 1:34.594 17
11 55 Carlos Sainz RENAULT 1:34.891 1:34.566 12
12 20 KevinMagnussen HAAS FERRARI 1:34.972 1:34.732 12
13 10 Pierre Gasly SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 1:34.850 DNS 13
14 28 Brendon Hartley SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO HONDA 1:35.206 DNS 13
15 33 Max Verstappen RED BULL RACING TAG HEUER 1:34.766 4
16 14 FernandoAlonso MCLAREN RENAULT 1:35.294 6
17 35 Sergey Sirotkin WILLIAMS MERCEDES 1:35.362 6
18 18 Lance Stroll WILLIAMS MERCEDES 1:35.480 8
19 9 Marcus Ericsson SAUBER FERRARI 1:35.536 8
20 2 StoffelVandoorne MCLAREN RENAULT 1:35.735 6

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