Racing Weekend Preview: Atlanta, Sebring, and F1 Down Under

Adam AmickSenior Writer IMarch 16, 2007
It's a big weekend in the racing world: Formula One opens its 2007 season in Australia, the American LeMans Series holds its premier 12 Hour race at Sebring, and all three top NASCAR Series go to work at Atlanta Motor Speedway—the fastest track on the circuit. 
Here, the Bleacher Report's Adam Amick gives you the skinny on what to expect.  
Formula One: Australian Grand Prix
Fernando Alonso did what he set out to do:  Not only did he claim the FIA F1 World Championship from Michael Schumacher in 2005—he repeated as champion in 2006, despite a midseason charge by the German legend. 
With Schumacher retired, F1 is looking for the next big thing.  Alonso would have been in a solid position to maintain the top spot with the Renault team, but he decided to take up the challenge of returning McLaren-Mercedes to prominence.
While Alonso will struggle to keep pace with the pack, expect Ferrari's Felipe Massa to pick up where he left off in 2006—on top of the podium. Massa is now out from under the shadow of Schumacher, and proved last year that he could win on his own. 
Ferrari lured former McLaren driver Kimi Raikkonen to take Schumacher's seat, and thus has two top racers in its stable.  The question hanging over the Ferrari camp: Which driver will support the other?  If Raikkonen is up front, it'll be interesting to see whether Massa plays wingman or spoiler.
Renault, meanwhile, will move forward with Giancarlo Fisichella as number one—and will try to compete for victories without the "mass dampener" device that helped them win seven of the first nine races in 2006. 
F1 will run only Bridgestone tires this season, which should make the rest of the field more competitive.  Look for BMW-Sauber, Honda, Williams, and Toyota to run better this season—but expect another Ferrari-Renault battle for the top spot, with Massa edging out the competition.
This weekend's Australian Grand Prix will answer a number of questions: Can Alonso compete for McLaren? Can the Ferraris get along? Can Renault still run up front?  Watch for complete coverage of the Aussie G.P. live from Melbourne on Speed Channel, with qualifying Friday night at 11:30 Eastern, followed by the live race on Saturday night at 10:30.
American LeMans Series: 12 Hours of Sebring
Sebring is the most coveted event for the American LeMans Series—and like NASCAR, ALMS starts the season with its biggest (and longest) race. 
Marco Werner put Audi's R10 TDI Diesel on the pole, and teammate Allan McNish will start beside him for Saturday's fabled 12 Hours of Sebring. 
These cars are so dominant that the rest of the field has to hope for mechanical problems or a driver mistake to have a chance.  The definition of domination? Audi has won the Sebring race every year since 2000.
ALMS welcomes newcomer Acura to it's P2 class, and three teams—including Andretti-Green Racing—will look to knock off the defending class champion Team Penske on Saturday. The Penske team will be racing an improved Porsche RS Spyder, and hopes for better reliability in the 12 Hours than last year. 
In qualifying, Penske's Timo Bernhard finished first in P2 to take the class pole, outrunning the new Acura of Highcroft Racing with David Brabham behind the wheel.
The GT1 class is led once again by Corvette Racing and the yellow C6-Rs. The Vettes qualified 13th and 14th for Sebring, just ahead of competitor Aston-Martin's DBR9. Jan Magnussen turned a lap at 1:57.061 to grab the class pole, and teammate Oliver Gavin will be starting next to him.
Corvette has won four out of the last five seasons in GT1 at Sebring.

Ferrari is on the pole for the GT2 class, with Jaime Melo turning a lap of 2:02.439—a new class record. A spin later in the qualifying session cost Melo, though, and he may have to start last if the team needs to change tires—in which case the Ferrari driven by Tomas Enge will assume the pole.

The 55th Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring will be carried live on Speed Channel starting at 9:30 Eastern Saturday morning.  Coverage will be interrupted by NASCAR practice and qualifying, but will resume at 1:30 for the race to the checkers.  Speed will also replay a special on the introduction of Acura to ALMS before the race—a very informative piece that's well worth your time.
NASCAR: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Craftsman Truck Series 
The NCTS will run its third race of the season Friday night at Atlanta, with Jack Sprague and Mike Skinner sharing the points lead after two races. 
Sprague won with a pass at the line at Daytona, while Skinner got the win at Fontana after Ron Hornaday spun Mark Martin on a late restart. Johnny Benson is looking to return to the victory circle, and Hornaday and Todd Bodine will be racing hard for their first wins of 2007.
The American Commercial Lines 200 Craftsman Truck Series race will be carried live on Speed Channel Friday night at 8:30 Eastern.
Busch Series 
Jeff Burton won with a daring pass last week in the Busch Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  Kyle Busch slid sideways across the finish line behind Burton, but should run strong on Atlanta's 1.5-mile double-dogleg "D" oval. 
Carl Edwards maintains the points lead going into the Nicorette 300 on Saturday, and is no doubt hoping to break out his signature backflip after a win.  Qualifying will air live on Speed Channel Saturday morning at 11:30 Eastern, with ABC's race coverage starting at 2:30 p.m.
Nextel Cup Series
The NNCS travels to the friendly confines of Atlanta Motor Speedway after a harrowing weekend in Vegas.  Speeds at Atlanta are the highest on the circuit, and Jeff Gordon is looking to capture his first win of 2007 after two consecutive second-place finishes. 
Points leader Mark Martin hopes his team can get him a victory after three top-fives to start the year. Kasey Kahne, on the other hand, will try to recover from a late crash last week to capture his second pole in a row—and repeat his pole-and-win performance in Atlanta from a year ago. 

Nextel Cup coverage will start Friday on Speed, with qualifying for the Kobalt Tools 500 at 7 p.m. Eastern. Speed will also broadcast the final practice session on Saturday at 11 a.m., before the race airs live Sunday on FOX at 1:30 p.m.