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Final Turn: Memorial Day Weekend Is Auto Racing's Greatest Specatacle, Three Times Over

Memorial Day weekend is the busiest time in the motor sports racing calendar, with major events in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One all on the same day.

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Former Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti
Former Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti

There is no bigger time of the year in motor sports than Memorial Day weekend. Three of the biggest racing events of the season traditionally are held over that holiday weekend, headlined by the open-wheel event that bills itself as the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," the Indianapolis 500.

Two other widely followed racing spectacles that are taking place this weekend are NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race in Charlotte, N.C., the longest race in the NASCAR season and the Grand Prix of Monaco in Formula One over one of the most picturesque and challenging road circuits in global grand prix racing.

This year's Indy 500, on Sunday, will mark the 96th running of the event, and it will be the first time since 2004 that the 33-car field will not include the ever-popular Danica Patrick. The 30-year-old IndyCar-turned-NASCAR female race driver and marketing phenom will not be idle over the holiday weekend, however. Patrick will not be on the starting grid at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but she will be racing, piloting the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The co-owner of Patrick's NASCAR Sprint Cup ride, Tony Stewart, knows a thing or two about moving from IndyCar to NASCAR in the late 1990s, and actually raced in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day on a couple of occasions. Patrick, who is the only female driver to finish as high as third in the Indianapolis 500 (in 2009) will also be participating this weekend in the Nationwide race in Charlotte.

Patrick has made the full-time commitment to NASCAR, and although she says she has wonderful memories of her time in open-wheel racing. "I was ready to leave IndyCar," Patrick said earlier this week. "I wanted to be here (NASCAR). When you are not missing something, longing for something, you don't really think about it that much.

"Probably the part of me that doesn't feel quite as longing for it is that there is still a chance that I could do it again," she said.

Patrick will start 40th in Sunday's 600-mile race at Charlotte. Two Richard Petty Motorsports cars are on the front row, with stock-car racing legend Richard Petty's iconic No. 43, now driven by Aric Almirola, on the pole alongside teammate Marcos Ambrose.

Kansas City-area NASCAR drivers Clint Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., and Carl Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., are starting fifth and 28th, respectively in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. Neither driver has won a Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At the Indianapolis 500, which will be held earlier on Sunday, Australian Ryan Briscoe will be on the pole. Briscoe, who drives for Penske, is seeking his first win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.6-mile rectangular oval. He has sis IndyCar wins in his career.

The Indianapolis 500 is one the United States' premiere racing events, but an American driver has not won the event since 2006. The Americans are considerably outnumbered in this year's Indy 500, as well, with only nine U.S. drivers in the 33-car field. Four American drivers, however, will start in the first four rows at the Brickyard on Sunday: Ryan Hunter-Reay (3rd), Marco Andretti (4th), Josef Newgarden (7th) and Graham Rahal (12th). Hunter-Reay and Andretti both drive for Michael Andretti and Andretti Autosport.

Three race teams have dominated the Indianapolis 500 in recent years. Team Penske has won a record 15 Indy 500s and four since 2001. Chip Ganassi has won three times since 2000 and Andretti drivers won in 2005 and 2006. The winning drivers in all of those Indy 500s was from outside of the United State. Only one of the wins (Sam Hornish in 2006 for Penske) was by an American driver. Only twice in the last 13 Indy 500 races has the driver been an American (Buddy Rice, driving for Rahal-Letterman in 2004, was the other).

In Formula One this weekend, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher won the pole for this first time since his return to the sport two years ago. Schumacher will not be starting in the No. 1 position at Monaco on Sunday, however, because of a grid penalty he incurred because of shunt with Bruno Senna in the Spanish Grand Prix a couple of weeks ago. The German racing legend will start sixth due to the penalty, which moves Red Bull Racing driver Michael Weber, who qualified second for Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix, to the pole position. Schumacher's teammate at Mercedes, Nico Rosberg will start third.

Ironically, the last time Michael Schumacher won the pole position for the Grand Prix at Monaco, in the late 1990s, he had to vacate the front position because of a penalty. Schumacher has won the race at Monaco five times in his career. He is still looking for his first F1 win since coming out of retirement two and a half years ago.

Later this year, the United States will host its first Formula One race since 2007 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Louis Hamilton of Mercedes-McLaren won that race. A brand new race track in Austin, Texas, Circuit of the Americas, will be the host venue when F1 racing returns to the United States in November.

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