Cup drivers in uncharted territory – stage racing on a road course

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For the most part, stage racing has brought added excitement and different forms of strategy to NASCAR Cup competition in the first 15 races of the season.

But how stage racing will impact Sunday’s road course race at Sonoma Raceway remains a mystery that won’t be answered until the checkered flag falls in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

First of all, the first stage ends on Lap 25 and the second stage ends on Lap 50 of the 110-lap race.

How those stages change the pit stop strategies devised by crew chiefs can range from little impact to radical changes.

While much of the strategy onus will fall upon crew chiefs, Cup drivers are also concerned how much stage racing will impact their race. Here’s what some of them are thinking about:

Sonoma polesitter, Cup points leader and Michigan winner Kyle Larson: “Yeah, I think stage racing or the stages will play into effect. I still haven’t talked to my engineers about it. We will have a pre-race meeting (Sunday) and kind of go over what their race plan is, as far as how many stops we are going to do and stuff like that. I don’t know yet, how it will affect it, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

“I don’t think it would turn into a four-stop race, but possibly a three-stop race rather than typically being a two-stop race, but I don’t know. I would have to talk to the engineers, they are smart. I just pit when they tell me to pit.”

Outside pole sitter Jamie McMurray: “The fact that we have a good starting spot at the beginning is going to be big. The stages are going to be interesting to see how that affects the race or if it does. But, yeah, got a good car and just ready for (Sunday).”

Denny Hamlin: “With the stages and everything that goes into play, the field’s going to be flip-flopped all day long and we just hope to be on the right end of it at the right time.”

Brad Keselowski: “The stages are going to throw these races … the road course and tracks like Pocono where you can pit and not lose a lap. … it throws these races a complete curve ball. I think you’ll see that here.”

Martin Truex Jr.: I feel like if you win the first stage, you’re probably not going to have a chance to win the race at the end. I think you’re going to see a lot of guys pit before the first stage is over. … I don’t play strategy, I don’t do strategy, I’ll leave that up to Cole (Pearn, crew chief), and hopefully he’ll figure it out. But it’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s going to be a lot more difficult, I think, to call this race than it has in years past. In the last few years we’ve seen tires play such a big role in winning this race that I think it’s been since about 2013 since this was won on two stops, or maybe actually 2012. So it’s been a long time since anyone done it on a one‑ or two‑stop strategy, and tires are going to be a big deal. So I think everybody stopped a least four times last year, and we’ll see what this year brings.”

Clint Bowyer: “It will certainly change a lot about this track. Who knows? That (stage racing) has been such a big thing and a good thing I guess for our sport. If there ever was an exception to that rule you hope it is not here. You make those rules to try to ramp up the competition everywhere across the board and sometimes there are race tracks that maybe didn’t need it. This is one of those places where you didn’t need anything but obviously you have to make rules to be good for everywhere. … I think the strategy side will kind of go by the wayside and you will have to push as hard as you can. We have been pretty easy on our equipment over the years by being able to pace ourselves, save fuel, not just dive-bomb every single corner of every lap. You might see some attrition show up because of it. And you will see desperation show up at the end.”

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Erik Jones tops final Cup practice for Brickyard 400

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Rookie Erik Jones was fastest in the final Cup Series practice session for the Brickyard 400 with a top speed of 185.845 mph.

Jones’ top speed came on his third of nine laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Completing the top five were Kevin Harvick (185.824), Ryan Blaney (185.816), Jimmie Johnson (185.487) and Jamie McMurray (185.460).

Matt Kenseth, 20th fastest, recorded the most laps in the session with 34.

Johnson had the best 10-lap average at 180.951 mph. Kyle Busch followed him at 180.864 mph.

Click here for the full practice report.

During the practice session the spotter for Harvick, Tim Fedewa, told the driver over radio that he had his hard card taken by NASCAR after the sandwich he was eating fell from his perch on the Pagoda. NASCAR confirmed it returned his hard card after practice.

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Toyotas dominate opening Cup practice at Indianapolis

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Toyotas took the top three spots and four of the top six spots in the opening Cup practice session Saturday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin, driving a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, led the way with a lap of 187.414 mph. He was followed by Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., whose Toyota went 185.559 mph. JGR driver Matt Kenseth was next at 185.200 in his Toyota.

Kasey Kahne was fourth for Hendrick Motorsports, leading his Chevrolet to a lap of 185.151 mph. Kyle Larson was next at 185.002 mph in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. The top Ford was Ryan Blaney. He was eight in his Wood Brothers Racing ride at 184.453 mph.

There were no incidents in the 55-minute session.

Final Cup practice is scheduled to go from 11 – 11:55 a.m. ET on CNBC.

Click here for full practice report

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Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch among those penalized practice time at Indy

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NASCAR announced that the teams of Jimmie Johnson and Corey LaJoie will miss 15 minutes of practice in Saturday’s first session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for being late to inspection before last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The teams of Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon will each miss 15 minutes in Saturday’s final practice session for multiple inspection failures before last weekend’s race at New Hampshire.

Today’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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Points leader Elliott Sadler continues his quest for his first Xfinity Series championship in today’s Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sadler has made five previous Xfinity starts at the historic Brickyard. His two best finishes there have come in the last two races – fifth in 2015 and sixth last year.

Sadler holds a 45-point edge over JR Motorsports teammate William Byron and a 90-point lead on teammate Justin Allgaier.

Here are the particulars for tonight’s Xfinity race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 3:37 p.m. Green flag is set for 3:49 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 100 laps (250 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 15

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 30. Stage 2 ends on Lap 60.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Xfinity garage opens at 9 a.m. The driver/crew chief meeting is at 2:15 p.m. Driver introductions are at 3 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Corey Cox will perform the Anthem at 3:31 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with Countdown to Green. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network will broadcast on radio and the Performance Racing Network at 3 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the IMSRN/PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 90 degrees at race time with a 23 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Kyle Busch started from the pole and led 62 of the race’s 63 total laps. Kevin Harvick finished second, while Paul Menard was third. Busch also won the 2015 race.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 12:45 p.m.