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This Week in Auto Racing Nov. 16 - 18

10:56 PM, Nov 14, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - While Formula One returns to the United States for the first time in five years, the championships in all three of NASCAR's national touring series will be decided in the season-ending races at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

NASCAR

Sprint Cup Series

Ford EcoBoost 400 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Fla.

It ain't over till it's over.

That's the mindset of Jimmie Johnson heading into this weekend's Sprint Cup Series season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnson fell 20 points behind leader Brad Keselowski after finishing 32nd in last Sunday's penultimate race at Phoenix due to an accident in the late going. Keselowski had trailed Johnson by seven points, but after his sixth- place finish at Phoenix, he is now in the driver's seat to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

"Certainly if you have the choice you always want to be in the lead of the points, especially in the closing races, so I'm thankful for that," Keselowski said. "But I also know that the troubles that (Johnson's team) had are the same troubles that we could have (this) week, and so you try not to take anything for granted. You try to just focus on what lies ahead, and we've got to do the best job we can at Homestead."

Keselowski and Johnson are the only drivers who remain in title contention. The other 10 members in the Chase field have been mathematically eliminated.

Keselowski will clinch his first Sprint Cup championship if he finishes 15th or better at Homestead, regardless of Johnson's performance there. Keselowski can also be guaranteed the title if he finishes 16th and leads at least one lap or places 17th after leading the most laps.

Johnson has battled back from a points deficit with one race to go to win the championship in the past. Two years ago, he trailed Denny Hamlin by 15 points, which is roughly four under the current points system. Johnson's second-place finish compared to a 14th-place run for Hamlin allowed Johnson to claim his record-extending fifth consecutive title.

"My focus is going down there and winning the race," Johnson said. "We typically haven't had to have that mentality going into this race, but we have shown we can race for the win. We did it in 2010 against Denny, finished second and won the championship. This 48 Lowe's team can do it again. We have nothing to lose and can gamble and take chances. Brad doesn't have that luxury. This isn't over. This team never gives up, and we don't intend to now."

Johnson has yet to win in his 11 races at Homestead. Keselowski, though, has finished no better than 13th in his four starts there.

If Keselowski can win the championship, the 28-year-old would give team owner Roger Penske his first title in NASCAR's premier series. Keselowski's 2010 Nationwide Series championship was Penske Racing's maiden title in a NASCAR national touring circuit.

"When I first came to Penske Racing, I viewed it as an organization with so much potential," Keselowski said. "I had a vision for what I knew this place could become, and I shared that with Mr. Penske in our first meeting together. And as he began to give (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe) and I the things that we needed, we began to show results on the racetrack which, in turn, led to a lot of trust among myself, Mr. Penske, Paul and everyone else at Penske Racing.

"So having a legitimate shot to win the championship this weekend is something that I take great pride in because I know we got there together."

Keselowski also has an opportunity to hand Dodge a huge going-away present before the auto manufacturer bids farewell to NASCAR competition, at least for the time being. Keselowski is seeking to become the first Dodge driver champion since Richard Petty in 1975. The auto maker departed the sport after the 1977 season and returned in 2001.

"I would hope that they come back as soon as possible," Keselowski said. "I would love to see that happen. I think it's important for the sport to have as many participating manufacturers as possible, especially one that fits the sport as Dodge does. I don't have a good feel for their vibe on it, but I hope to see them back soon."

Penske Racing will field Fords for its Sprint Cup and Nationwide teams in 2013 and beyond.

If Johnson can pull off a remarkable comeback to win the championship, it would be the record-extending 11th title for team owner Rick Hendrick. A sixth championship for Johnson would put him one behind the series record for most titles, shared by Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Forty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Nationwide Series

Ford EcoBoost 300 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Fla.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler have fought tooth and nail for the Nationwide Series championship all year long, and now it comes down to this weekend's season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway to decide the title.

Stenhouse is seeking to become the sixth different driver to win back-to-back championships in NASCAR's second-tier series. He presently leads Sadler by 20 points, which is the same point-separation between Sprint Cup Series title contenders Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.

No driver other than Sadler or Stenhouse has led in the Nationwide point standings this season. Sadler has sat no lower than second in the rankings, but his current 20-point deficit is his largest since May when he trailed Stenhouse by 34 points.

Rookie Austin Dillon, who is Sadler's teammate at Richard Childress Racing, is the only other driver who remains in contention for the championship. Dillon is 25 points out of the lead.

Stenhouse will clinch the championship if he finishes 16th or better at Homestead. The Roush Fenway Racing driver is also guaranteed of the title if he finishes 17th or higher after leading at least one lap or places 18th or better with the most laps led.

"It's not even close to being over," Stenhouse said. "We still have to make sure we do everything at Homestead. It's gonna be tough, because I'm gonna have to not push the limits as much as I like. I like going for race wins too, so it's gonna be a fine balance there, because I want to win that race and win the championship all at the same time."

Those drivers who have won successive championships in the series include: Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy LaJoie (1996-97), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-99) and Martin Truex Jr. (2004-05).

"We started the year off counting points as soon as we started, and it would mean a lot to me to go back-to-back," Stenhouse said. "I think as a race car driver you come out to win championships. You want to win races, but championships are what last for a long time. Last year was special. It felt like we didn't have a dominant year, so even though it was still a championship, it didn't feel like a championship year. This year has felt like it's been a championship year, so it would be huge."

Stenhouse and Sadler were tied in points heading into last Saturday's race at Phoenix, but Sadler finished 22nd after he was involved in a multi-car crash in the closing laps. Stenhouse posted a third-place run.

Sadler will compete in his last Nationwide race for RCR. He announced earlier this year that he is leaving Childress' team at season's end. It is widely rumored that Sadler will join Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2013 season.

"It's hard to believe that it is the last race of the season already," Sadler said. "This team has been great to work with. I love the determination and the heart each member of the team has, and although we head to Homestead with a deficit, we are not out of this championship. We will fight until the end. We have to finish off what we started, and we are as prepared as we need to be to go out there and make it happen."

Neither Stenhouse nor Sadler has won a previous Nationwide race at Homestead. Stenhouse has finished second and fourth in his first two starts there, while Sadler has placed no better than fifth in his six races at this 1.5-mile racetrack. Dillon will compete in a Nationwide event there for the first time.

Forty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 300.

Camping World Truck Series

Ford EcoBoost 200 - Homestead-Miami Speedway - Homestead, Fla.

With the top-three drivers separated by just 12 points, Friday's season-finale for the Camping World Truck Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway could be a wild battle for the championship.

James Buescher heads to South Florida with an 11-point lead over Timothy Peters and a 12-point advantage over rookie Ty Dillon. Joey Coulter and Parker Kligerman remain mathematically eligible for the championship, with Coulter trailing Buescher by 29 markers and Kligerman 37.

Buescher had a setback last week at Phoenix, where he finished 17th after blowing a tire and making contact with the wall in the closing laps. He came to Phoenix with a 15-point lead over Dillon.

If Buescher finishes seventh or better at Homestead, he will clinch his first Truck Series championship, regardless of any other driver's performance. Buescher can also be guaranteed the title if he finishes eighth or higher and leads at least one lap or places ninth or better after leading the most laps.

"This team knows what it needs to do," Buescher said. "We've been running great all year long, and I don't expect anything less than great for the last race of the year. We're going to go down to Miami to run our own race, and hopefully, we'll be celebrating a championship when the race is done."

Buescher has finished no better than 12th in his four previous truck races at Homestead.

Peters had trailed Buescher by 25 points, but Peters gained significant ground in the standings after his fourth-place finish at Phoenix.

"It feels good to be in this position," he said. "We've got a shot, and that's all we can ask for."

Dillon finished 15th at Phoenix after he was caught up in one of many wrecks that occurred during the 153-lap race there. Dillon competed in last year's rain-shortened truck race at Homestead, finishing sixth.

"We're going to do our best to win this race," he said. "We had a good truck there last year, and we've had some success on the 1.5-mile tracks this year. We have one more race to claim the championship, and I know we're going to fight hard to win it for (Richard Childress Racing)."

Just twice since the season-finale shifted to Homestead in 2002 has the points lead changed hands in the final race. Travis Kvapil is the only third-ranked driver to advance to the title, leapfrogging Ted Musgrave and leader Brendan Gaughan in 2003. Ron Hornaday Jr. made up a 29-point deficit to catch Mike Skinner in 2007. Jack Sprague is the only other second-place driver to prevail in the last race of the season, edging Greg Biffle for the championship in 1999 at Fontana, Calif.

Thirty-eight teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Ford EcoBoost 200.

FORMULA ONE

United States Grand Prix - Circuit of the Americas - Austin, Texas

For the first time in five years, Formula One will compete on American soil.

The new Circuit of the Americas -- a 3.4-mile, 20-turn road course located 15 miles southeast of downtown Austin, Texas -- will host the United States Grand Prix for the first time. Sunday's 56-lap USGP is the penultimate round in the 20-race season. F1 will run its season-finale on Nov. 25 in Brazil.

Fernando Alonso's second-place finish coupled with a third-place run for two- time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel in the Nov. 4 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix allowed Alonso to trim Vettel's points lead from 13 to 10.

"We just need to concentrate on our race, and if we finish in front of Sebastian in the next two races, then maybe we have a chance," Alonso said.

Vettel from Red Bull and Ferrari's Alonso are the only drivers who remain eligible for the championship. Kimi Raikkonen from Lotus won the Abu Dhabi GP, but Raikkonen has been mathematically eliminated from the title race, as he trails Vettel by 57 points. The maximum amount of points a driver can earn over the next two rounds is 50. The race winner is awarded 25 points.

Teams will be faced with a lot of unknowns at COTA. No active driver has yet to make any laps around the course. Former F1 driver David Coulthard drove a Red Bull Racing showcar there when circuit construction had just begun. Lotus test driver Jerome d'Ambrosio piloted a 2010 Renault R30 on opening day at the track. Teams only have simulator data to help them with their weekend preparations at this course.

"We're in the best possible position, so I think we're looking forward to the next race, a new grand prix and a new challenge," Vettel said. "It's difficult to know who is going to be quick."

Vettel is scheduled to make his 100th career F1 grand prix start. The German made his F1 debut in the 2007 USGP, which was held on Indianapolis Motor Speedway's road course. Substituting for the injured Robert Kubica at BMW Sauber, Vettel finished eighth at Indy to become the sport's youngest point scorer. He was 19 years old at the time.

"I think it's great that we are traveling to the United States again," Vettel said. "I have been in the simulator learning the Austin track, how it flows and getting a general feel for it."

Nine U.S. venues have previously hosted a F1 grand prix: Sebring, Riverside, Watkins Glen, Phoenix, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Long Beach and Indy.

Lewis Hamilton is the last winner of the USGP, doing so in '07. Racing for McLaren in his rookie season, Hamilton scored pole position and won at Indy. It came one week after he recorded his maiden F1 win in the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.

"It's crazy to think that the last United States Grand Prix was five years ago," Hamilton said. "It's a race I still remember like yesterday, though the nervy anticipation as I drove into the [Indianapolis Motor] Speedway for the very first time, the thousands of supportive fans and the fantastic car I had beneath me that enabled me to take my second grand prix victory in the space of a week. For me, those were incredible, thrilling times."

Made up of 11 left and nine right turns, COTA is one of just five current F1 circuits to run anti-clockwise. Singapore, Korea, Abu Dhabi and Brazil are the others.

COTA's track surface took four months to lay, and the third and final layer was completed in late-September. 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.

"I think the Circuit of The Americas looks like it could also be the place that modern Formula One finally calls home," Hamilton noted. "I've only driven it on the computer and in the (simulator), but I think it's going to be a track that drivers enjoy, which produces some great, close racing, and which fans will quickly love.

"This is a new circuit, a new challenge and a new opportunity. I'm definitely looking to be the first grand prix winner at the Circuit of The Americas."

The first two practice sessions for the USGP are scheduled for Friday. The third and final practice will take place on Saturday, prior to qualifying.

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