This Week in Auto Racing Nov. 15 - 17
By Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor
The Sports Network
Homestead, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The 2013 NASCAR season concludes this weekend, with the championships in all three of its national touring series to be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Formula One is at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas for the United States Grand Prix.
Sprint Cup Series
Ford EcoBoost 400 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Fla.
Jimmie Johnson winning his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship is the main "tropic" of conversation this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- the site of the season-ending races for all three of NASCAR's national touring series.
Johnson enters Sunday's 400-mile event at Homestead with a comfortable 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth and a 34-point advantage over Kevin Harvick, who won last weekend's race at Phoenix.
Regardless of where Kenseth, Harvick or any other driver finishes at this 1.5- mile racetrack, Johnson will clinch the championship with a finish of 23rd or better, 24th or higher and at least one lap led or 25th or better and the most laps led.
"Definitely in the position I want to be in," Johnson said during a press conference on Thursday at Homestead. "We can control our own destiny. It does come with a price. There's a lot of pressure on myself and the team to get things done. We'll deal and manage that as the weekend goes on. But excited to have this opportunity."
Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team won a NASCAR-record five consecutive Sprint Cup titles from 2006-10. Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt share the record for most titles in the sport with seven each.
Since the inception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in 2004, Johnson's team has been in the playoffs for NASCAR's top series each year. Johnson finished just eight points behind champion Kurt Busch in the inaugural Chase nine years ago, making it the closest points margin at the time. Johnson finished sixth in points two years ago, his lowest in the standings during his Cup career. He ended the 2012 season in third-place (40 points behind champion Brad Keselowski).
Jimmie Johnson enters Sunday's event at Homestead with a 28-point lead.
"I've worked with a lot of fantastic race car drivers, and I've seen a lot of drivers come and go in our sport, but I think that Jimmie is, for me, and for our time, the best driver to ever sit in a race car," Knaus said. "Now, does that mean that he could have taken a 1956 Dodge or Plymouth or something like that and beaten Richard Petty? I have no idea.
"All I can compare it to is the present. All I can compare it to is what we do out there right now and the performance that I see him pull. I think he's pretty remarkable. I'm very, very fortunate to have a driver of that talent."
In the first nine Chase races this season, Johnson has an average finish of 4.7, compared to 9.0 for Kenseth and 7.0 for Harvick. All three drivers have won two races each during the playoffs.
Kenseth had one of his worst races of the season this past Sunday at Phoenix, where he finished 23rd and fell from seven points to 28 behind Johnson, who placed third.
"It was probably our worst performance of the year and really couldn't have came at a worse time," Kenseth said. "We went back and tried to figure out what went wrong. We think we have a handle on what went wrong, tried to figure it out for the next time. Certainly wanted to win. We still have a chance to do that if everything plays out right in our favor, I guess."
Harvick's win there helped him remain in championship contention. Homestead will be his final race with Richard Childress Racing. He is moving over to Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season.
"As you approach the last race of the season, know you're at a deficit and approach it like we did last week, then we have to go out and score maximum points," Harvick said. "We have to figure out how to do that throughout the weekend. Hopefully, we can have a good weekend and control the things that we can control."
Qualifying at Homestead, scheduled for Friday, will be a huge factor. Three years ago, Denny Hamlin entered the season-finale here with a 15-point lead over Johnson, but Hamlin qualified 37th compared to sixth for Johnson.
Hamlin was involved in an early-race accident, making contact with Greg Biffle and then spinning onto the infield grass along the backstretch. Hamlin damaged his front splitter and pitted several times under caution for his team to fix the car. He wound up finishing 14th.
Johnson finished second in that race and concluded his championship season 39 points ahead of Hamlin. NASCAR revised its points format in 2011, implementing a one-point per position (43-1) system. Johnson is the only driver in the Chase-era that overcame a points deficit in the final race of the season.
"Qualifying is so important," he said. "Here it seems we have a lot of green- flag runs. If you start down on track position, don't have your car right come race day, don't make the most of Saturday (final practice), you're going to have a long race, put a lot of pressure on yourself that you don't want."
Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, is in his first season as driver of the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing. He has scored a series-leading seven victories this season. Kenseth has one win at Homestead, which came in 2007.
"Obviously, we're not going to make up the deficit on performance," he said. "I think Jimmie could run 28th through the grass or with three wheels on. He's going to have to have a mechanical problem or crash to make something happen. We'll have to be up in the top-five to hold on to second (in points) or to overtake Jimmie if he has a problem."
Johnson has yet to win in 12 races at Homestead. Harvick is winless in a dozen events here as well.
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for Ford EcoBoost 400.
Ford EcoBoost 300 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Fla.
The battle for the championship in the Nationwide Series heading into the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is the closest among the three national series in NASCAR.
Austin Dillon holds just an eight-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr. They are the only drivers who remain eligible for the title.
Dillon, the 23-year-old grandson of NASCAR multi-team owner Richard Childress, is attempting to become the third driver to win a championship in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. Greg Biffle and Johnny Benson have accomplished the feat. Dillon won the truck title in 2011. Last year, he finish third in points in his Nationwide rookie season.
"It would mean a lot," Dillon said of winning the Nationwide championship. "I'm glad this is the last race of the year. Feel like we need to approach it with a win. We don't have any wins this year. To finish off the year with a win in the championship would be great."
Regardless of what Hornish does at Homestead, Dillon will clinch the Nationwide title if he finishes third or better, fourth or higher with at least one lap led or fifth or better with the most laps led.
"I feel like you want as big of a points lead as you can have coming into this race," Dillon said. "We've been dealt a good points lead. The thing about it not being super huge, you don't have to be as conservative. (Hornish) has got to race hard. I've got to race hard to stay up front. You can't lay back and try to give any, because there's not much there. We got to go for it.
"Calculated risks are what you got to take most of the time. If we're there at the end with a shot to win, we're going to try to take it."
Hornish has one win this season, which came in March at Las Vegas, a 1.5-mile racetrack similar to Homestead. He's also finished third in the last two Nationwide races held on mile and a halfs -- Charlotte and Texas.
"One of the things that gives me confidence going into this weekend is our performance on the mile-and-a-half's this year and the fact that we got to come here and test," Hornish said. "It's a big gamble to look at (Homestead) and say that we need to be the best that we can possibly be when we get there, but we had a feeling that we were going to need to be strong here. Saving that test day for here hopefully will be a real good thing for us."
Hornish is hoping to win the Nationwide championship after claiming three titles in the IndyCar Series (2001, '02 and '06). He competed in that series for eight years.
"I want to win the championship really bad," he said. "I feel like we're going to go out there and we're going to race hard for it. But we also know that doing it the right way and trying to do it the way a champion would do it is necessary. That's part of winning it.
"It's not about doing something that you feel like you're going to have to think about every time you look at a ring or a trophy or anything like that."
Hornish has finished seventh and fourth in his last two Nationwide races at Homestead, while Dillon placed fifth in his first series start here one year ago.
The owners' championship in Nationwide will also be decided at Homestead. The No. 22 Penske Racing team currently leads the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing team by just four points. The 22 can only be guaranteed a clinch of the owners' title by winning the race here. Joey Logano is scheduled to drive the car here, and Kyle Busch is entered in the No. 54.
Forty-one teams are on the entry list for Ford EcoBoost 300.
Camping World Truck Series
Ford EcoBoost 200 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Fla.
Matt Crafton has a relatively easy task ahead of him to win the championship in the Camping World Truck Series.
All Crafton needs to do to clinch the title is start Friday night's 200-mile race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He holds a 46-point lead over Ty Dillon. James Buescher, who won the series championship last year, is 50 points behind the leader and out of contention.
Crafton is expected to set a new record as the longest-tenured driver in the history of the series to claim his first title. He holds the record for most consecutive truck starts, currently at 315. His streak began at the start of the 2001 season.
"I figured as long as I got to the racetrack I'll be alright, but I have considered sleeping in a rental car out here," Crafton jokingly said during a press conference on Thursday at Homestead. "I feel pretty comfortable with it. I have 30-something other trucks that are going to be out there that will have my back. Ty would still have to win the race if I didn't show up. So I feel alright."
ThorSport Racing announced on Thursday that Crafton has signed a multi-year contract extension with the team. Menards will continue to sponsor his No. 88 Toyota in 2014. It will be Crafton's 10th consecutive season driving for the team.
"Matt's consistency and competitiveness at a very high level epitomizes what ThorSport is all about," team owner Duke Thorson said. "We're pleased to keep Matt and Menards together moving into the future and look forward to their continued success."
ThorSport also revealed that Crafton's teammate, Johnny Sauter, has renew his agreement with the team.
Crafton has a chance to set another record in the series as well. If he finishes on the lead lap at Homestead, he will become the first driver to complete every lap of competition during the season.
There's one other record that can be set at Homestead. If Crafton's No. 88 team can finish ahead of the No. 54 Kyle Busch Motorsports team in this race, then ThorSport would become the first team to lead the owner point standings during the entire season. Sauter led in points for the first three races until Crafton took over the top spot when he won the April 20 event at Kansas. Sauter started the season with victories at Daytona and Martinsville.
Last year, Crafton finished sixth in points and did not win a race during the season. Kansas is his only victory this year.
"Going into 2014, there's no doubt that I feel we can go do it back-to-back if everything goes right," he said.
No driver has won consecutive championships in the 19-year history of the series.
Forty teams are on the entry list for Ford EcoBoost 300.
United States Grand Prix - Circuit of the Americas - Austin, Texas
Red Bull driver and newly-crowned four-time Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel will try to keep his winning streak intact in Sunday's United States Grand Prix.
Two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, Vettel became the fourth driver in F1 history to win seven or more grand prix in a row. His fellow German compatriot, Michael Schumacher, most recently won seven straight races in 2004. Jim Clark accomplished the feat in 1965. Alberto Ascari holds the record for most consecutive victories with nine, doing so from the tail end of the 1952 season through the early part of the 1953 season.
If Vettel wins at Circuit of the Americas, a 3.4-mile, 20-turn road course located 15 miles southeast of downtown Austin, the 26-year-old German will set the record for most consecutive victories in a single season with eight. The 2013 season concludes with the Nov. 24 Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo, where Vettel could match Ascari's record.
"I know that any kind of record you talk about, Michael is involved for sure, I don't know what to say," Vettel said. "The thing is that people see seven races. People don't see the challenge it takes every single race to nail it. It's been exceptional. The fact that we got everything right, smooth pit stops and reliability. All these things need to come together.
"The numbers are not that important to me, but equally, they make me very, very proud. If you equal something or you're close to something then the guys you talk about are the most special drivers in the world in Formula One. I don't think I'm old enough yet to realize that."
Lewis Hamilton from Mercedes is figured to be Vettel's biggest challenge in the USGP. Hamilton is the only current driver to have won at more than one American circuit. The Briton scored his second career grand prix victory in 2007 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway's road course. When F1 returned to the U.S. five years later, he claimed his 21st career win in the first Austin race. Both of those victories occurred when he drove for McLaren.
"The first race at the Circuit of the Americas last year was such a great occasion, particularly for me, as I was lucky enough to win," Hamilton said. "The enthusiasm and passion from the fans at the new venue was amazing, and it was fantastic to see the support at the track and in the city. Austin is such a cool place.
"The track itself is a lot of fun and a real challenge to get the perfect lap. The high-speed changes of direction combined with the long straights and slower sections make it quite tricky to find the right setup and balance."
In last year's USGP, Vettel started on the pole and led the way for 41 laps before Hamilton overtook him for the top spot. Hamilton, who started second, ran in front for the final 15 laps, beating Vettel to the finish line by just 0.6 seconds.
COTA is one of five current F1 circuits to run anti-clockwise. The track's surface took four months to lay, and the third and final layer was completed in late-September of 2012. The last layer is made up of aggregate from all over Texas. All told, over 640,000 cubic meters of material have been used to construct the track.
"Last year, we were all sliding quite a lot because the tarmac was still so new, especially on the tight and twisty bit towards the end," Vettel said. "It was sometimes almost more rally style than Formula One, because it was so slippery. The section after the steep hill at the beginning is particularly challenging. It took me quite a while to get my bearings and to position the car correctly."
Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen will not be competing in this race and the season- finale in Brazil. Raikkonen, the 2007 F1 world champion, is scheduled to undergo surgery back surgery. He has been suffering from back problems during the second half of the season. The 34-year-old Finn has opted to have surgery now so his 2014 season will not be impacted when he drives for Ferrari.
On Thursday, Lotus announced that Heikki Kovalainen will replace Raikkonen in the USGP and the Brazilian GP. Kovalainen has 109 grand prix starts, driving for Renault, McLaren, Lotus and Caterham in the past. He has not competed in a race since last year's Brazilian GP.
"It is a fantastic opportunity for me to join Lotus F1 Team for the final two races of 2013," Kovalainen said in a team statement. "We've seen this year that the (Lotus) E21 is a car which can win races and finish on the podium, so I will be pushing hard for the best results possible. Jumping into a car so late in the year when you have not been competing in the races all season will be a challenge."