Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Is Justin Marks a Lock for Road America Win?

Is Justin Marks a Lock for Road America Win?

Rain, a road course and a stock car. Now all you need is a set of rain tires and you’re set to go.

Most of the time, when radars point to precipitation, they also point toward Justin Marks. Despite only one career top five to his credit in a 31-race XFINITY Series career, that came last year when he bested the field under heavy clouds to score the victory for Chip Ganassi Racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Returning to the No. 42 seat at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago, Marks overcame a hard crash to salvage ninth place.

Was last year’s performance a one-off for Marks or will he strike hot again on Sunday?

At Road America, the series is back racing on a road course for the third and final time in 2017. After trips to Watkins Glen International and Mid-Ohio the past few weeks, rain is nearly the only factor we have yet to see in the left-and-right contests as of late.

That will likely change for the Johnsonville 180, which is expected to be affected by rainfall in a mid-afternoon start time.

But with the help of rain tires — which were used last year at Mid-Ohio with questionable results — the show must and will go on, giving us the possibility of a new 2017 winner in Victory Lane at the end of 45 laps.

Will Austin Cindric Bring Road Course Skills to XFINITY Debut?

If Marks doesn’t catch that lightning in a bottle this weekend, Austin Cindric may.

Running full-time for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series in 2017, the 18-year-old will move to XFINITY, making his debut in the Team Penske No. 22.

Will he fill the shoes of one of the series’ best cars? Well, the guy who wore them last did pretty well, as Sam Hornish Jr. turned in a brilliant performance from pole into a Mid-Ohio win. Additionally, Brad Keselowski won Pocono Raceway this year.

So yes, the equipment is completely there for Cindric, who has shown the ability to catch onto racing, currently riding a streak of six straight top 10s in Trucks. But how will a road course prep a first-timer?

Christopher Bell got his XFINITY start this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway and returned at Iowa Speedway, straightforward tracks that are represented on the Truck Series side as well. The same can be said for Tyler Reddick, Daniel Hemric and others in 2017.

But experience is where Cindric stands out in this scenario. Road course racing is where he started, and it’s surely racing in which he finishes strong. Going two-for-two in the K&N Pro Series East on road courses in 2016, he also has sports car experience at Mount Panorama to give him perspective coming into a NASCAR race in America.

And with that, he has already turned some eyes in the garage area, as Joe Gibbs Racing’s James Davison picked Cindric as the prime contender to beat come Sunday.

Will An Off-Week Hinder Erik Jones’ Progress?

Perhaps this isn’t the best time for an off-week if you’re Erik Jones. You wouldn’t want to hit a flat surface when you have a snowball rolling, and you don’t want an off-week when you’re hot off back-to-back career-best finishes.

After coming up just short at Michigan International Speedway two weeks back, a third place and a lesson learned was enough to post the question of if he could redeem himself at Bristol. Who would’ve known he would come even closer to that first win at the half-mile? He led more than half the race from pole before coming up short in the battle with Kyle Busch.

With consecutive near-wins, the rookie now is down to two chances to get it done: Darlington Raceway next week and Richmond Raceway the following. Looking at his past at Richmond on the XFINITY side, he’s done well, with a pole and three top fives in four starts. A crash on lap 4 in the spring Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race spoiled a decent gauge for expectation in the regular season finale.

At Darlington, he finished sixth last year. And like Richmond, there isn’t much to take from the Cup side, as the Lady in Black is a unique track, and Jones has never started a Southern 500.

This is more important than ever, as scoring a playoffs spot via points is out the window, sitting 126 points behind 16th-place Jamie McMurray. With an off-week to digest the stakes for the next two weeks, will Jones actually pull it off?

Will Spa Bring Kimi Raikkonen Back to Ferrari Form?

The summer break is over, and Formula 1 is back this weekend for the Belgian Grand Prix from the illustrious Spa Francorchamps Circuit. After a four-week hiatus, the worldwide teams and drivers will meet again at one of the crown jewel events as we approach a packed window of racing into the changing seasons.

Spa will kick off only the third-consecutive weekend races of the year, with the sport instantly heading south to Italy for the fastest track of the year at Monza. And while most struggled in the time off, it was a happy time for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who found out he won’t have much time off in 2018. Yes, the 2007 World Champion will return to the prancing horses next year, partnering with teammate Sebastian Vettel for a fourth straight year.

With an eye on experience instead of banking on a new driver at what looks to be a return to form for Ferrari in 2017, is it worth it for Raikkonen? And will Spa turn his quiet year around?

Sitting 86 points behind a teammate, who is also the championship leader, is never good thing. That is more than three races of points. But the Finn is also behind both Mercedes drivers and Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

With all these men scoring wins this year, Raikkonen is stuck with a zero in the column, riding an 86-race winless streak, by far the longest of his career.

But things were on the upswing before the summer break, as the 37-year-old managed three straight top fives, ending with a second-place finish in Hungary to none other than Vettel. Additionally, his qualifying has been strong this year, currently on track to surpass his career-best average start in his 15th season.

This momentum meets one of his best tracks, Spa. In the mid-2000s, Raikkonen was dubbed the King of Spa after winning four times in five attempts from 2004 to 2009. In that span, he led 152 of 220 laps ran at the 4.35-mile track, or 70 percent.

Recently, though, the name has become forgotten, as he has missed the podium each year since 2012, scoring only point finishes in the meantime. With a confirmed future and a teammate well ahead in the championship, this weekend could be the time for Kimi to contend.


About the author

Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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