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This Week in Auto Racing March 15 - 17

2:14 PM, Mar 14, 2013   |    comments
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Bristol, TN (Sports Network) - The NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series go short-track racing for the first time this year at Bristol Motor Speedway. Formula One begins its new season with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

NASCAR

Sprint Cup Series

Food City 500 - Bristol Motor Speedway - Bristol, Tenn.

It should be one heck of a St. Patrick's Day party at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Sunday's 500-lap race at Bristol will mark the first event for NASCAR's new Sprint Cup Series car, the Gen-6, on a short track. It will also be the second time the series competes on the track's modified surface.

This 0.533-mile, high-banked oval was altered following the March 2012 races. The top groove of the concrete surface was grinded with the intention of bringing back traditional racing here. Six years ago, the track was reconfigured with the addition of variable banking. It produced more side-by- side racing and therefore lowered the amount of beating and banging among competitors. The number of cautions at Bristol had significantly reduced as well.

The night race at this track in August featured 13 cautions as well as 22 lead changes among 13 drivers. There were only five cautions in the Sprint Cup event here one year ago.

"I think we are going to see people running right up against the fence, and I think you're going to see people trying to slide-job each other and trying to make the bottom groove work," said Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola, who is currently 10th in the point standings.

Bristol will be the fourth different track configuration for the Gen-6. Since this car is faster and has more downforce and better grip than the previous car, which was used from 2007-12, the racing here will probably be different than what we've seen in the past.

"I think the mechanical aspects will help the cars at Bristol," said Hendrick Motorsports driver and five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. "The last time there, we were very curious about the grinding and what would happen and what wouldn't. The track just changed in some ways, and we will just go back and get in a rhythm and see what happens."

After the first three races, Johnson holds a five-point lead over defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and a 10-point advantage over Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Johnson won the Daytona 500 and finished second at Phoenix before placing sixth at Las Vegas.

Keselowski has finished no worse than fourth this season. The Penske Racing driver has been pleased with his results but admits he's hungry for a win. His most recent victory came in October at Dover, which is also a concrete- surfaced track (one mile in length).

"I feel like we've had a shot at winning all three (races)," Keselowski said after his third-place run last Sunday at Las Vegas. "I want to win really bad, but I guess the consolation is starting out the year with three solid finishes and just kind of backing up where we finished last year with solid runs."

Keselowski has won two of the last three Sprint Cup races at Bristol, including a victory in last year's spring event here. He finished 30th at this track seven months ago.

"Bristol to me is a man's racetrack, and I respect that place so much," he said. "I think it takes a level of respect for it. From day one, the first day I walked in there, I respected it but I also wanted to win there. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could be the man to win at a man's racetrack."

After Mark Martin drove the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing at Daytona, Phoenix and Las Vegas, Brian Vickers will be behind the wheel of that car for the first time season at Bristol. Vickers, who is now a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series, will drive the No. 55 in nine Sprint Cup races this year. He finished fifth at Bristol one year ago, leading 125 laps. He followed up with a fourth-place run here in August.

"I would have loved to have won one of those races, and we came very close," Vickers said. "Obviously, I was very pleased with the results and how it all worked out, considering it was part time."

This will be the first race with the 2013 Sprint Cup owner points being used to determine the provisional starting positions (37-42). The current owner points will also decide the starting lineup if qualifying for any one of the remaining races this season is canceled due to inclement weather.

Last week's qualifying at Las Vegas was rained out. Keselowski was awarded the pole since his No. 2 Penske team finished first in points last year.

According to the National Weather Service, the forecast for Bristol on Friday calls for no chance of rain, but there is a 60 percent chance of precipitation on Sunday.

Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Food City 500.

Nationwide Series

Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300 - Bristol Motor Speedway - Bristol, Tenn.

Elliott Sadler will attempt to win the Nationwide Series spring race at Bristol for the second year in a row, but he will do so with a new team.

Sadler drove the No. 2 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing last year, finishing second to champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the point standings, but after the season concluded, Sadler moved over to Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 11 Toyota.

After three races, Sadler is tied with Justin Allgaier and Brian Scott for second in points. Sam Hornish Jr. won last Saturday's race at Las Vegas and built a 19-point lead in the series.

Sadler began the season with a 15th-place finish at Daytona and then placed fifth at both Phoenix and Las Vegas.

"I think one thing I've learned from my experience as a race car driver is to try to get off to a good, solid start to kind of get the year going," Sadler said. "You've got to get some momentum on your side, and we were close at Daytona. We led a lot and ran up front a lot. We got in two wrecks at the end and knew we had to go to Phoenix and Vegas and managed some really good finishes there; and had some good, solid days to try to get some momentum on our side.

"We find ourselves going into probably three of my best racetracks here with Bristol coming up, California and Texas, places that I've won with all in the Cup cars."

Sadler, who hails from Emporia, Va., has two wins, six top-10 finishes and one pole in 12 Nationwide starts at Bristol. He has finished no worse than eighth in the last five races here. Sadler's first win in the Sprint Cup Series came at this half-mile oval in March 2001.

"Bristol Motor Speedway has always been special to me, because I attended races there as a fan when I was a kid," he said. "My dad would take us, and I used to sit in those stands and dream about winning a race there. To be able to race there years later, winning a race early in my Nationwide Series career in 1998 and win my first-career Sprint Cup Series race in 2001 was special."

Pit strategy paid off for Sadler at Bristol one year ago. He was the only driver on the lead lap that opted not to pit during the last caution period. Sadler took the lead with 36 laps remaining and then held off Sprint Cup regular Kasey Kahne with 27 laps to go. Sadler beat Kahne to the finish line by just over a second.

"Winning at Bristol last March was definitely one of my favorite moments of my career," Sadler said. "I was able to celebrate in victory lane with my parents for the first time. It is one of those moments that I will never forget."

Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are those Sprint Cup regulars scheduled to compete in this race.

FORMULA ONE

Australian Grand Prix - Albert Park Circuit - Melbourne, Australia

After months of preparation and testing, it's time for 11 teams and 22 drivers to get the 2013 Formula One season underway with this weekend's Australian Grand Prix.

There are a lot of unknowns heading into the opening round of the 19-race schedule this year. With teams still figuring out the new Pirelli tire, no one is quite sure what to expect in Australia.

Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus and Mercedes will once again be the top teams, but after winter testing in Barcelona and Jerez, Spain, no one is fully certain which one of those teams will perform the best throughout the season.

"I think it's going to be a long year," said Red Bull driver and three-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel. "We're looking forward to this weekend, and this is the first of many. I think we've seen in the last couple of years, last year in particular, that it's a long season and every race is very important. So this is the place we start, but then there are many other places coming."

Vettel begins his campaign for a fourth consecutive title. The 25-year-old German beat Fernando Alonso from Ferrari by just three points for the title last year. Vettel won the Australian GP for the first time in 2011. He finished second in this event last year.

The new tire will be a major factor in the Australian GP and perhaps other races to come. More pit stops for tires are expected since the 2013 compounds are softer and faster than the previous ones.

"No one knows who can win this race at this moment," Alonso said. "We have to wait and see for answers to some questions that winter testing doesn't answer. I think there are top teams with a little bit of advantage. Maybe it's not the same as last year where we saw seven different winners in the seven first races. It was a little bit mixed on the grid.

"I think this year with the consistency in the rules I expect the five top teams to have a little advantage and not to have many, many surprises in the first races."

Jenson Button from McLaren is perhaps the favorite to win the Australian GP, since he has three victories in the last four races at Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne.

"The start of a new season is always exciting, as it's the culmination of months of hard work and planning," Button said. "I've had some great experiences in Melbourne, having won the race three times, and I love the place. There isn't a better location in the world to be kicking off what will no doubt be a fiercely competitive world championship."

The Australian GP is the home race for Red Bull's Mark Webber and Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo. Webber's best finish in this event is fourth, which occurred last year. He has also finished fifth in it three times.

"I think it's just great to come to Australia at any stage, let alone for a race, so we're all looking forward to finally racing," Webber said. "There's a lot of testing that goes on in Spain, and we can all get down to what we all enjoy doing, and that's racing the cars. All the teams, drivers come here with a little bit more anxiety, because it's the first grand prix of the year."

Ricciardo finished ninth in his first race in front of his home crowd one year ago.

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