Cheez-It 355 - Qualifying

Montoya to drive in IndyCar next year for Team Penske

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NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Juan Pablo Montoya will be returning to open-wheel racing after all. But who could’ve predicted that he’d be suiting up for Roger Penske?

Earlier today, Penske Racing announced that Montoya, the 1999 CART champion and the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner, will take the controls of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet in the IZOD IndyCar Series on a full-time basis in 2014 – joining current series points leader Helio Castroneves and Will Power.

Montoya has spent the last seven seasons in Sprint Cup, but was recently informed that he would not return to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing next season. He had been linked to a possible IndyCar ride with Andretti Autosport, as well as a new Sprint Cup drive with Furniture Row Racing, which is losing Kurt Busch at season’s end.

But this past week, Montoya informed Andretti Autosport that he would not join them. Instead, he and “The Captain” will team up in what could prove to be a major overall boost, both on the track and off, for INDYCAR.

“I am really excited to join this legendary team beginning next year,” Montoya said in a statement. “I have had the opportunity to drive for some of the best racing teams in the world and I have always admired Roger Penske and his organization. I consider it an honor to be offered the opportunity to drive for Team Penske.”

In his own thoughts, Penske was equally cordial to Montoya.

“Juan is a proven winner at all levels of motorsport,” he said. “He has won a lot of races and championships and he has an extremely passionate fan base. We look forward to building on his successes together and we believe he will be a great addition to Team Penske.”

Following his success with Target Chip Ganassi Racing in CART, Montoya hopped the pond to Formula One, where he would compete with Williams (2001-2004) and then McLaren (2005-2006). After a six-year run in F1 that saw him capture seven Grand Prix wins, he made the massive switch to stock car racing full-time in 2007 with Ganassi’s NASCAR program.

Montoya was hyped considerably as a potential hook for NASCAR to grab the coveted Latino/Hispanic market. But while he’s been able to notch a pair of Sprint Cup wins (both on road courses), he’s been unable to truly escape mid-pack status in the series. He’s only made the Chase once, back in 2009, when he finished eighth in the championship.

But now, Montoya has a chance to revitalize his career. He’ll likely face a learning curve with the new-to-him Dallara DW12 upon his return to IndyCar, but one assumes that with his talent and the environment at Team Penske, he can get up to speed again before too long.

Rosberg’s early championship lead ‘a big deal’ to Hamilton

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton is refusing to play down the significance of Nico Rosberg’s early lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2016, calling his 36-point advantage “a big deal”.

Hamilton entered 2016 looking to end Rosberg’s run of three straight victories to close out the 2015 season, only for the German to extend his streak to six by winning the opening three rounds of the year.

Hamilton has suffered a messy start to the season, with incidents in Bahrain and China plus a poor start in Australia limiting him to just 39 points from the first three races.

Rosberg has downplayed the significance of his early lead with 18 rounds still remaining in the season, but Hamilton believes it is important.

“For me that is a big deal,” Hamilton told the official F1 website.

“36 points are a lot of points. It is a race and a bit.

“But there is a flip side to this as well: it is an average of two points per race, so it is possible to make up. As long as it is not impossible, anything is possible.

“I have been racing for over 23 years so I have had a lot of challenges before, and some of them were probably even bigger. From the get go, the first year of racing, the first championship that I have battled in, to the first one I have lost.”

Mercedes worked on its start procedure after poor getaways in the first two races, but Hamilton is happy with his last jump off the line in China – although he did start from 22nd after an engine issue in qualifying.

“I don’t think that I need to do any more [work on starts] now,” Hamilton said.

“I think I had the best start of the entire grid at the last race. We have been working of course on that issue.

“The last two races I have been driving with a loss of performance of nearly one second per race and been trying to climb a mountain with that, which was not so easy.

“I would like to have a good and clean weekend this race – and apply a good start.”

Hamilton will be looking to end Rosberg’s run of victories in Russia this weekend, with all of the action from Sochi being broadcast across CNBC, NBCSN and Live Extra.

Hamilton back on top in Russia FP2

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton topped the charts during second free practice for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, the first time he’s led a session since taking pole in Q3 for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Hamilton posted his best time of the session early at 1:37.583 in the Mercedes W07, which was six tenths and change up on Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel’s session was halted early with an electronics issue, which brought out a virtual safety car period with just under an hour left in the 90-minute session. Both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen are using a new internal combustion engine this weekend.

Nico Rosberg was a bit further off in third at 0.867 of a second back, before the rest of the session settled into the usual longer runs.

Romain Grosjean had a spin in the Haas but resumed, while Manor had a nightmare session. Both Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto spun and Wehrlein parked on the side of the road right at the checkered flag, having lost power.

The hope is that the race evolves into something more than a one-stopper; Pirelli’s medium compounds are rare this weekend with a majority of the field running longest on the soft compound and also using the supersoft as the sofest compound.

FP3 runs at 5 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Live Extra tomorrow morning, before LIVE qualifying airs on CNBC from 8 a.m. ET tomorrow.

Times are below:

Rosberg leads as Ricciardo debuts new Aeroscreen in Russia FP1

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Like in preseason testing, Mercedes AMG Petronas topped the timesheets in first practice for the Russian Grand Prix but the story of the session was elsewhere as one of the new cockpit enhanced devices made its debut at the start of practice.

Nico Rosberg was fastest in the W07 at 1:38.127 on Pirelli’s supersoft compound, while Daniel Ricciardo introduced Red Bull Racing’s new Aeroscreen to the world for an installation lap.

The device was installed on Thursday and Ricciardo rolled out with it to start practice. Following an installation lap it was back to removing the device and running in standard configuration. The Aeroscreen is one of two cockpit enhancement devices to have made its debut this year, Kimi Raikkonen having rolled out the “Halo” concept at Barcelona for preseason testing.

Alas in practice, several drivers spun on the low-grip Sochi Autodrom circuit – Lewis Hamilton at Turn 2, Jenson Button at Turn 15 and Sebastian Vettel at the same corner shortly thereafter, and local hero Danill Kvyat later in the session at Turn 17. Jolyon Palmer also had a spin at Turn 17 just after the checkered flag.

Further down the grid Manor Racing had a difficult start to the session with a floor change on Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis and an unspecified technical issue for teammate Rio Haryanto. Both made it out for some laps later in the session.

Rosberg topped Hamilton by 0.722 of a second with Vettel third, Raikkonen fourth and Felipe Massa fifth. Ricciardo was sixth in his usual car configuration.

Two drivers stepped in for race drivers this session, with Russian Sergey Sirotkin ending a respectable 13th in his debut with the team in FP1.

That being said, his number choice of 46 inspired Kevin Magnussen, who was sidelined for the session, to throw a bit of shade on Sirotkin after getting the Romain Grosjean treatment in sitting out.

Alfonso Celis Jr. also ran for Sahara Force India in place of Nico Hulkenberg and propped up the timesheets, 5.305 seconds off Rosberg and a full 3.1 seconds and change behind teammate Sergio Perez in ninth.

Times are below. You can see FP2 live on NBCSN from 7 a.m. ET, and also via live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra.

Ricciardo debuts Aeroscreen in FP1 in Russia (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo has rolled out with the team’s new Aeroscreen, the windshield cockpit device making its formal debut during FP1 for the Russian Grand Prix.

The Australian started the session with the device, ran an installation lap and then brought it in the pits. Once under normal chassis conditions, he ended sixth.

The device is one of a couple being tested in preparation for possible 2017 enhanced cockpit protection, which go along with the regulations, to see the driver cockpit area continue to be improved for safety purposes.

Quick photos of Ricciardo’s rollout are below, along with a couple videos released by Red Bull of the Aeroscreen being tested:

More to follow later today.