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Race Weekend Preview – April 27-29, 2018

FIA Formula One Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Baku City Circuit, Azerbaijan, Sunday, April 29/18

The Formula One circus returns to Baku again this year for the third time.  This is a street circuit through the middle of the old part of the city with some extremely tight sections but the drivers claim that there indeed passing places despite this. Also the tight confines of the track with the buildings right up against the track’s edges means that there are few places for spectators to watch from – but this oil-rich country does not seem to need a big gate to make the event successful.

In the inaugural race in 2016, Lewis Hamilton’s then teammate Nico Rosberg dominated, winning the pole and the race on his way to the world championship. Last year, Hamilton won the pole and led the race but he Vettel got angry with him and Vettel hit him twice while they were behind the safety car. Vettel got a penalty but Hamilton later had his headrest come loose and he had to pit to have it fixed. In the end, Daniel Ricciardo won the race over the other Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas , with Canadian Lance Stroll coming in third. Stroll has not seen results anything like this so far this year, finishing in 14th place in all three race, so another podium finish for the young driver seems highly unlikely.

In the most recent Grand Prix in Shanghai, Ricciardo was the surprise winner ahead of Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen. In the first three races of the 2018 season, Mercedes has yet to win a race.

As the teams return to this unusual venue again this year, who knows what will happen? Surely, Hamilton, who has shown good form in pre-season testing and in qualifying sessions, has to finally start winning again.

NASCAR MENCS GEICO 500, Talladega Superspeedway, Sunday, April 29/18

NASCAR returns to the Talladega Superspeedway this week. This is the longest and, were it not for the restrictor plates NASCAR has imposed to keep the speeds down, it would be the fastest track in the series. However, even with the speed limitations, it is the track that sees the most ‘pack racing’ and the most ‘big’ multi-car crashes making this race something of a lottery as to who will win.

Last year, Ricky Stenhouse, driving for the Roush Fenway team won in a wild overtime finish. That race saw six cautions (not counting the two Stage-end cautions) including one at lap 170 of the 188-lap race – the race actually went to 191 laps with overtime. Stenhouse led only two laps, the first and the last earning his first win in five years of full-time Cup racing. In the last five years, Brad Keselowski has the most wins – five –  but given the number of big wrecks we seem to see at every race here this race is pretty much a lottery.

Childress scion and Cup driver Austin Dillon was the surprise winner at the Daytona 500, another wreck-fest, so his chances of a repeat here are no better than that for half the drivers in the field. All the usual suspects will be here this weekend and most of them can hope for a win if they are lucky and their competitors are not.

Last week at Richmond, Kyle Busch won his third Cup race in a row and you can be sure that he is gunning for a fourth. Chase Elliott, who has yet to win a Cup race, came second again. The Penske Fords have a good history here and the odds are good for both Joey Logano (who came fourth last week) and Brad Keselowski (who finished eight). Some unexpected drivers have scored their one-and-only Cup win here – and, like at Daytona, we could see a first-time winner.

Darrell (‘Bubba’)Wallace, who is driving from the Richard Petty team this year, finished fifth at Daytona and he might just pull off another top finish here.

The fact that there are not enough regular entries running this year to make up the 40-car field leaves some openings for others to try their hand. Notably, Canadian D. J. Kennington will be back in his No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Toyota. Other interlopers include Timothy Peters (best known a truck series driver), and Cole Custer who is vying for the Xfinity championship this year.

NASCAR Xfinity Sparks Energy 300, Talladega Superspeedway, Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Xfinity racers find the Talladega track equally challenging and last year’s race saw two ’big ones’ involving a total of 17 of the 40 cars that started the race. Aric Almirola, driving the No. 98 Ford won the race by a margin of 0.142 seconds over Elliott Sadler with Joey Logano bringing the Penske No. 22 Ford home in third place.

In last week’s race, which did not allow drivers competing for the MENCS title to enter, Cole Custer started from the pole but he finished back in sixth place. Christopher Bell, who is running as a rookie driver in this series for Joe Gibbs after winning the truck championship last year, won over his teammate-for-the-day Noah Gragson with Elliott Sadler in third place. Penske protégé Austin Cindric had his best race in this series so far, finishing in fifth place. This week Gragson will be back in the No. 18 car

Any of these drivers might win the lottery but I’ll also be keeping my eye on some others like Daniel Hemric, John Hunter Nemechek, and Chase Briscoe. Quebecer Alex Labbé is running in the Xfinity series this year but so far he has had disappointing results, his best finish so far was a 16th at Bristol.

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