This Week in Auto Racing May 24 - 27

5:25 PM, May 23, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Auto racing's biggest day of the year is on Sunday, beginning with the Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, followed by the Indianapolis 500 and then the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

IZOD INDYCAR SERIES

Indianapolis 500 - Indianapolis Motor Speedway - Indianapolis, IN

Team Penske has been untouchable so far in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

Penske has won four wins in as many races this season -- all of them contested on road/street courses. Last Saturday, Ryan Briscoe kept the racing organization's pole-winning streak alive this year by capturing the top starting position for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.

Sunday's 500-mile race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- the first oval event of the season -- might be a very sweet one for team owner Roger Penske. Not only could Penske's team win its fifth straight race this season, but the organization could claim its record-extending 16th victory in the Indy 500.

What's made Penske so successful at Indy?

"It's the people," he said. "We've had the best drivers, certainly the continuity of the crew, [Team Penske President] Tim [Cindric] leading the whole group of drivers, also the team members that makes a big difference. It's like we've never been here before when we come back, other than the experience."

The new "DW12" car (named in honor of the late-Dan Wheldon) and Chevrolet's return to IndyCar as an engine supplier have played a key role in Penske's perfection so far this season.

All three of Penske's drivers qualified in the top-six for the Indy 500. Briscoe starts on the pole for the first time in this race, while his teammates, Will Power and Helio Castroneves, roll off from the middle and outside positions, respectively, on row two.

"I think this year with the cars being new, they seem to be very reliable, Penske said. "The guys seem to be able to drive at high speeds. We'll see what happens when the boost goes up. I think it's going to be an exciting race, and you're not going to be able to make mistakes."

Briscoe won the pole with a four-lap average of 226.484 mph. He beat Andretti Autosports' James Hinchcliffe for the top starting spot by only 0.0023 seconds, making it the closest 1-2 qualifying finish in Indy 500 history.

"It's good knowing my name will go down in history at the Indianapolis 500," Briscoe said after his pole win. "It's something that will be here forever. This race is so important and so big. A pole win here is tremendous. It's a great feeling."

Briscoe's best finish in six Indy 500 races is fifth, which came in 2007 when he made his first and only start of the season for Luczo Dragon Racing. He moved over to Penske the following year. His last IndyCar victory came in 2010 at Texas (30 races ago).

Three of Penske's 15 wins in the Indianapolis 500 have come from Helio Castroneves. Should Castroneves take the checkered flag at Indy this weekend, he would join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser as the only four-time winners of this race.

Castroneves is the only driver who won the Indy 500 consecutively in his first two starts (2001 and '02). His most recent victory in this race came in 2009. Castroneves kicked off this season by winning the March 25 race in St. Petersburg, FL.

"Roger is very passionate about racing," Castroneves said. "When you see someone with that experience and that success, and still with the love for the sport, you start to admire him, and that's why we call him 'The Captain'."

Castroneves finished ninth at Indy in 2010 and 17th there last year.

Power holds a 45-point lead in the championship standings after winning the last three races -- Birmingham, Long Beach and Brazil. He will have the opportunity to join Foyt as the only drivers to win the Indy 500 as part of a winning streak of four or more races. Foyt accomplished the feat in 1964.

Power's best finish in four Indy 500 starts is fifth (2009). He finished 14th in last year's race.

"Every year you come here, you just learn more and more and more," Power said. "I have to say this year, I feel so comfortable in the car. I understand what I want from the car. I can give the feedback to the engineer with exactly the way the direction we need to go in. I feel that on all the ovals."

Chevrolet secured nine of the top-10 starting positions for the Indy 500. Rookie Josef Newgarden, who uses a Honda engine in his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car, qualified seventh.

For Dario Franchitti to win the Indy 500 this year might be a tall order. Franchitti, who claimed his record third consecutive and fourth overall series championship last season, will start 16th in his Honda-powered Target Chip Ganassi Racing car. He is a two-time winner of this race (2007 and '10).

"It's a completely new package," Franchitti said. "So we hope we know where the weak areas are. Throughout testing and throughout the races, we've definitely found out the areas we have defects. The engine manufacturers are pushing very hard, too, Honda, Chevy and Lotus.

"I think that's one thing people were shocked with this year when there were some engine issues. We got used to running with the Honda engine, it being 100 percent reliable. Now everyone is pushing the envelope, and there's going to be some failures. We hope we'll be in good shape to run the 500 miles."

Franchitti teammate, Scott Dixon, will start one spot ahead of him in 15th.

Castroneves, Franchitti and Dixon are the only drivers in this year's starting field that have won the Indy 500 in the past. Dixon's victory in this race occurred in 2008.

Lotus, which also entered the sport as an engine manufacturer this year, has its two drivers starting from the tail end of the field for the Indy 500. Simona de Silvestro (HVM Racing) and Jean Alesi (FP Journe) qualified 32nd and 33rd in that order.

Teams will have one last opportunity to practice and fine tune their cars for the 500-mile race in Friday's "Carb Day."

NASCAR

Sprint Cup Series

Coca-Cola 600 - Charlotte Motor Speedway - Concord, NC

After winning the May 12 race at Darlington and then last Saturday's all-star event, five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson enters this weekends's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a whole lot of momentum.

If Johnson wins Sunday's 600-miler -- NASCAR's longest race of the season -- he will become the first driver to win both Cup events at Charlotte during the month of May twice in his career. Johnson won the Charlotte double in 2003.

Other drivers who have won the Coca-Cola 600 and the all-star race at Charlotte in the same season include: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Jeff Gordon (1997), Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch (2010).

Having won Darlington and the all-star race, as well as last week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Pit Crew Challenge in Charlotte, Johnson's team has been on a roll.

"It definitely gives us confidence," Johnson said. "Even though we won the race, I saw a lot of strong cars [Saturday night]. I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key. Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy, if it's fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be, that's going to be key."

Johnson had been the most dominant driver at Charlotte, finishing no worse than third there from May 2003 to October 2006. He is the only driver who has won three consecutive Coca-Cola 600s (2003-05). In fact, he recorded a season sweep at Charlotte during the '04 and '05 seasons.

However, Johnson has struggled on this 1.5-mile racetrack in the previous two years. He has failed to finish the last two races there, placing 28th one year ago and 34th last October. Johnson also finished 37th in the 2010 Coca-Cola 600.

"With the old track and the surface and the bumps, there was just a certain way to drive the track, especially in [turns] three and four, a line that I somehow developed and found that other guys wouldn't run or couldn't get their cars to run that type of line," he said. "That doesn't exist today. So I don't feel like it's exactly like years past.

"What we've had over the last two, three months in our cars, the grip that we've created with the car, my car drove [last Saturday night] clearly better than I've had here in a long time."

Johnson crashed hard into the outside wall in the 500-mile race at Charlotte seven months ago.

In last year's 600-mile race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was less than a half-mile away from ending his lengthy winless streak in NASCAR's top series. Earnhardt Jr. led the way on the final lap but ran out of fuel on the last turn, allowing Kevin Harvick to drive past him and steal the win.

Currently third in the point standings, Earnhardt Jr. had an impressive performance in the all-star race. He led all 40 laps to win the Sprint Showdown and advance into the main event.

Earnhardt Jr. led the way after the fourth 20-lap segment was completed in the all-star race. He finished fifth in the 10-lap shootout to the finish.

"I think we showed what we are capable of doing here next weekend," Earnhardt Jr. said after the all-star race. "We are probably going to bring the same car. We have a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster, especially for qualifying that I hope will work out."

Qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 is scheduled for Thursday at 7:10 p.m. (ET).

Danica Patrick's Sprint Cup schedule continues this weekend at Charlotte. Patrick started 38th and finished 31st at Darlington. She made her series debut in the February 27 Daytona 500, placing 38th.

This will be the first time in seven years Patrick has not raced in the Indianapolis 500.

"I think once I see footage on television and watch the cars going around, I'm going to be thinking of those familiar feelings that I'm used to over the seven years," she said.

Patrick is expected to become just the second female to compete in the Coca- Cola 600. Janet Guthrie, in her first Cup start, finished 15th in this event in 1976.

Forty-seven teams are on the preliminary entry list for this race.

Nationwide Series

History 300 - Charlotte Motor Speedway - Concord, NC

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is heading in the right direction in his Nationwide Series title defense.

Stenhouse won a Nationwide race at Iowa Speedway for the third straight time last Sunday. The Roush Fenway Racing driver left Iowa with a 28-point lead over second-place Elliott Sadler.

However, NASCAR penalized Sadler with a loss of six points earlier this week for a rules infraction that occurred at Iowa. During post-race inspection, NASCAR officials discovered that Sadler's No. 2 Chevrolet did not meet the minimum rear car heights. His crew chief, Luke Lambert, received a $10,000 fine for the violation.

So Stenhouse now holds a 34-point advantage, as the series runs its 11th race of the season on Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"We are coming off a big win at Iowa, so we will carry that momentum with us into Charlotte," Stenhouse said. "Every driver wants to win at Charlotte in front of their family and friends. Last year, we sat on the pole and finished fourth, so we are looking to improve that finish. We are going to try to go for back-to-back wins."

Stenhouse's first two wins this season came at Las Vegas and Texas, which are the same length as Charlotte (1.5 miles).

Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are those Sprint Cup Series regulars competing in this race. Logano will attempt to win his third straight Nationwide event. He won at Talladega Superspeedway and Darlington Raceway earlier this month. He did not compete at Iowa.

"I think we will have a shot this weekend," Logano said. "I would love to make it four wins this year and three-in-a-row. Charlotte is a place that I've always loved racing at, and it is right here in the heart of all the NASCAR world, so to win right here would be huge."

Busch and Mark Martin hold the record for most Nationwide race wins at Charlotte with six each. Busch's most recent victory at this track occurred in May 2010.

Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the History 300.

FORMULA ONE

Monaco Grand Prix - Circuit de Monaco - Monte Carlo, Monaco

Formula One is experiencing one of its finest starts to a season in 2012.

There have been five different drivers and constructors that have won in as many grand prix this season.

Two of those drivers became first-time race winners. Nico Rosberg from Mercedes picked up his maiden F1 victory in the April 15 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, while Williams' Pastor Maldonado claimed his inaugural win in the May 13 Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.

"It's really special to win, especially the first one," Maldonado said. "But for sure, it is going to be difficult now. The gaps and the team levels are so close, so anything can make the difference. We need to put everything together to make a step forward, and I need to say that Williams are doing a very good job at the moment."

McLaren's Jenson Button won the March 18 season-opener in Australia, and Fernando Alonso from Ferrari took the checkered flag one week later in Malaysia. Two-time defending F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull earned his first victory of the season on April 22 in Bahrain.

Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix, contested on the world famous streets of Monte Carlo, is round six on this year's calendar.

Could we see a sixth different driver and possibly another constructor win this weekend?

Lewis Hamilton from McLaren has yet to win this year, while Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean are close to giving Mercedes a victory.

Who knows. Either Kamui Kobayashi or his Sauber teammate, Sergio Perez, might stun the racing world by winning the Monaco GP.

But Maldonado and Williams may surprise everyone by becoming the first repeat winners in F1 this season.

"We will certainly do our best," Maldonado said. "Our package is definitely getting better, and although we don't have the quickest car right now, we are improving very quickly. I have always liked Monaco, and after [winning the Spanish Grand Prix], I am certainly full of confidence."

But a win at Monaco might be a tough task for Williams. The team had its Spanish GP victory celebration quickly interrupted when a fire broke out in their garage area at Circuit de Catalunya. The fire caused extensive damage to the team's equipment, particularly with Senna's car. Senna was involved in an early-race collision with Mercedes' Michael Schumacher.

"After the fire, we've been working so hard to rebuild everything," Maldonado said. "The guys did a pretty good job, because we are ready to race, with everything we need to get the maximum. And I need to say that the guys have been working full days to have everything ready for this race, so great job for them."

Vettel is the defending winner of the Monaco GP. In last year's race, Vettel, who started on the pole, overcame an early-race pit-road blunder when his crew was not fully prepared for his stop. The young German pitted only once during the 78-lap race. He traveled the last 62 laps around the tricky 2.075-mile (3.34-kilometer) street circuit on prime tires. He held off Alonso and Button in a fierce battle for the lead during the closing laps.

"It's something special to race in Monaco," Vettel said. "It's tight and there's no room for error. It's rough and, as it is a street circuit, the road surface is uneven, so you get shaken in the car, and there is no room for mistakes."

Monte Carlo has been one of the most difficult circuits, where overtaking is virtually impossible. Track position for the Monaco GP is key, since the pole sitter for this race has won it in six of the last seven years. Hamilton won it from the third starting spot in 2008.

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