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This Week in Auto Racing June 21 - 22

<p>Sprint Cup Series</p>

Sprint Cup Series

Toyota/Save Mart 350 - Sonoma Raceway - Sonoma, California

Marcos Ambrose knows his best chance of locking himself in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will be with a win in either one of the two road- course races during the regular season -- Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

The Sprint Cup Series will run its first road course race of the season on Sunday at Sonoma, located in Northern California's wine country. Watkins Glen in Upstate New York is scheduled for the second weekend in August.

Ambrose, who is in his fourth year as driver of the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports in Sprint Cup, is considered one of the best "road-course ringers" in NASCAR. The 37-year-old Australian has two career wins in NASCAR's premier series, and both of those victories occurred at Watkins Glen (2011 and '12). In last year's race there, he started on the pole and led the most laps with 51 but was involved in an accident in the closing laps, which led to a 31st-place finish.

Ambrose has yet to win a Sprint Cup race at Sonoma but has come close here in the past. He has finished no worse than eighth in the previous five events at this 1.99-mile, 12-turn course. In the 2010 race at Sonoma, Ambrose held the lead during a caution with just seven laps to go but slowed on the track and fell from his leading position to seventh after he turned his engine off in an effort to conserve fuel. That allowed Jimmie Johnson to grab the top spot. Johnson won at this track for the first time, while Ambrose ended up finishing sixth.

Currently 23rd in the point standings, Ambrose would be virtually guaranteed a berth in the Chase if he wins at Sonoma or any other track during the 26-race regular season. He has yet to make the Chase since becoming a full-time Sprint Cup competitor in 2009.

"We know that the two road races are our best chance to win a race this year," Ambrose said. "That will automatically lock us into the Chase. Clearly, there's a lot to race for at these two tracks for us.

"We've put a lot of energy and effort into Sonoma. We went out there and did the Goodyear tire test earlier in the season. We've done some road-course testing as well, so we feel we're as ready as we can be."

Ambrose has been a road-course expert throughout his racing career. He is a two-time Australian V8 Supercar champion (2003-04), winning 27 races. Ambrose won three consecutive Nationwide events at Watkins Glen from 2008-10 and had a victory in that series at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2011.

"My natural skill set obviously is road racing," he said. "I'm quite confident on the ovals but haven't had the same success I've had on the road courses. Really, it's just the years of training. It's my niche.

"I feel very comfortable road racing. I feel like I can apply myself well on the weekend. The biggest thing I try to do on a buildup to a weekend like this, there's pressure building, there's a chance to lock yourself into the Chase, which would make your season. You get a chance to win a Sprint Cup race, which you don't get to do very often."

There have been nine different winners in the past nine Sprint Cup races at Sonoma -- Tony Stewart (2005), Jeff Gordon (2006), Juan Pablo Montoya (2007), Kyle Busch (2008), Kasey Kahne (2009), Johnson (2010), Kurt Busch (2011), Clint Bowyer (2012) and Martin Truex Jr. (2013). Kahne drove the No. 9 car for Petty's team when he won here. He is now behind the wheel of the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports.

Ambrose is hoping he'll be number-10 at Sonoma. It would make him the 11th different driver to win a race this season.

Richard Petty Motorsports competed in the Chase for the first time with Kahne in '09. Can Ambrose give RPM its second berth in the playoffs?

"It certainly would make our year," he said. "We know our year is not complete if you can't make the Chase. It's like you haven't qualified for the finals. I haven't made it to the Chase yet. This format will give us our best chance to do it, if we can win a race at either Watkins Glen or Sonoma. We know that. It would really make our year, no doubt about that. It would certainly make our sponsors and Richard Petty very happy."

A driver from Hendrick has won the last five points-paying races. Gordon started the streak last month at Kansas. Johnson has scored three victories in the past four events (Charlotte, Dover and Michigan). Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag at Pocono.

Gordon holds the record for most wins at Sonoma with five, including three in a row from 1998-2000.

Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Nationwide Series

Gardner Denver 200 - Road America - Plymouth, Wisconsin

While the Sprint Cup Series runs its first road-course race of the season this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the Nationwide Series has its maiden road-course event in 2014 at Road America.

With Kyle Busch competing at Sonoma, Sam Hornish Jr. will drive the No. 54 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in this race. Hornish is running a limited schedule for JGR in Nationwide this year. He made his debut with the team on May 3 at Talladega, where he started on the pole and finished fifth. Two weeks later, he won at Iowa after leading 167 of 250 laps.

Hornish also competed in last weekend's Nationwide race at Michigan, driving JGR's No. 20 car to a second-place finish.

"It's been a great start to my scheduled season," Hornish said. "I've had two races in the No. 54 Monster Energy [sponsored] car - a win and a fifth place. Hopefully, we'll keep that up pretty good. I got the bonus of being able to run last weekend in the 20 car, with a second place there [at Michigan]. I'm really happy with the way things have gone. Hopefully, we'll continue to carry that over to the road-course side of it."

After Road America, Hornish is scheduled to drive the No. 54 car at Chicagoland (July 19), Iowa (Aug. 2), Mid-Ohio (Aug. 19), which is also a road course, and Kentucky (Sept. 20).

Hornish drove the No. 12 car for Roger Penske's team in Nationwide full-time from 2012-13. Last year, he finished only three points behind champion Austin Dillon. But at the conclusion of the season, Penske ceased operations with the 12 due to lack of sponsorship. In January, JGR hired Hornish to run a partial schedule in the series this season.

"I'm really proud to be doing this schedule that I'm doing this year," he said. "It's not as much as I would like to be out there on the racetrack, but to be with JGR has been a lot of fun so far. The only thing that's missing is being able to do it every week."

Hornish has a Nationwide career average finish of 8.6 on road courses. He has finished fifth in each of his two starts at Road America (2012 and '13).

"Road America is a great race track, one of the coolest road courses in America," Hornish said. "It's a neat place to race with a lot of history there. My last two times here I finished the same - a strong top-five, but obviously we want more out of it this weekend. I think I can have a really good race with this No. 54 team. I'm really looking forward to it."

On Friday, Hornish posted the fastest lap in final practice. He made a lap around this 4-mile course at 108.189 mph. Brian Scott was second on the charts, with his lap just 0.007 seconds behind Hornish. Alex Tagliani, who is driving the No. 22 car for Penske in this race, was third, followed by Regan Smith, the current points leader, and Brendan Gaughan. The first practice session was called off due to rain.

Smith enters Saturday's 50-lap race at Road America with a 14-point lead over Elliott Sadler and a 20-point advantage over rookie Chase Elliott.

Thirty-eight teams are on the entry list for the Gardner Denver 200.

FORMULA ONE

Austrian Grand Prix - Red Bull Ring - Spielberg, Austria

Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton set the pace in Friday's practice for the Austrian Grand Prix, as Formula One has returned to this European country for the first time since 2003.

With F1 teams becoming acquainted with the 2.688-mile (4.326-kilometer), 9- turn Red Bull Ring, located in the scenic foothills of the Alps, Rosberg and Hamilton were the top-two drivers in the two practice sessions.

During the first session, Rosberg had the quickest time in 1 minute, 11.295 seconds. Hamilton was just a tick behind in 1:11.435, while Fernando Alonso from Ferrari posted a lap in 1:11.606.

"I did a lot of laps today, and on a new track, every lap is important for the learning process, so I'm quite happy with that," Rosberg said. "In general, it was a complicated day for me, so there is still some lap time to find compared to my teammate [Hamilton]. My car is bouncing a lot down the straights, and that continues into my braking zones, so it was difficult there. But I'm sure we can improve on that."

Hamilton led the way in the second session. His fastest lap was clocked in 1:09.542, which was almost four-tenths of a second quicker than Rosberg's best lap. Alonso was once again third quickest.

"It didn't feel bad out there today, considering this is a new track to me," Hamilton said. "Already after the first few laps, I was feeling comfortable and always seemed to be finding time with new lines and improvements. To be as quick as I was, considering others have already driven this track, is a great feeling. It was very windy out there today, but we got a lot of running, and we feel set for the race on Sunday."

Rosberg and Hamilton combined for a total of 138 laps in the two sessions, which was the equivalent to nearly two race distances. Sunday's Austrian GP is 71 laps.

"The high speed corners were working the rear tires hard, but they seemed to cope well," Hamilton noted. "The feeling was good for both sets of tires, even in the long runs, so if the car is like this for the race, I'm in a good place. The goal for [Saturday] will be pole position, but there is still a long straight up to turn two so anything can happen in the race."

Rosberg enters the Austrian GP, the eighth round in this year's F1 world championship, with a 22-point lead over Hamilton.

When F1 most recently competed two weeks ago in Canada, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo scored his maiden win, passing Rosberg for the lead with less than three laps to go as Rosberg was dealing with an ill-handling car. The race concluded with the deployment of the safety car after Force India's Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa from Williams made contact and spun out before both drivers slammed hard into the barrier on the final lap.

Here in Austria, this will be a big weekend for Ricciardo and his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, the four-time world champion, as the Austrian GP is the home race for the Red Bull Racing F1 team. Austrian businessman Dietrich Mateschitz, who founded the Red Bull Energy Drink company in the mid-1980s, owns both the team and the racing circuit in Spielberg.

"It's great to be going to Red Bull's home race after an awesome weekend in Canada," Ricciardo said. "The Red Bull Ring is a tidy circuit, not the longest and not many corners, but what is there is good."

Ricciardo's win in Canada moved him up to third in the championship standings. He is a distant 61 points behind Rosberg.

Formerly known as the Osterreichring and the A1-Ring, the Red Bull Ring has been significantly upgraded since it last hosted an F1 grand prix 11 years go. The Austrian GP was contested on the Osterreichring from 1970-87 and the A1- Ring from 1997-2003. Zeltweg Airfield hosted the first F1-sanctioned Austrian GP in 1964.

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