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Breaking down the new changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In one of the biggest changes of his 11-year administration, NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France on Thursday announced a new format to the Chase for the Sprint Cup designed to further emphasize winning and enhance fan excitement – and potentially create a vibe that sells more tickets and increases TV ratings in the process.

The new format “is as simple as it gets,” France said during a roughly 20-minute presentation to the press on the final day of the NASCAR Media Tour at the Charlotte Convention Center.

“We have arrived at a format that makes every race matter even more, diminishes points racing, puts a premium on winning races and concludes with a best-of-the-best, first-to-the-finish-line showdown race – all of which is exactly what fans want,” France said. “The new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be thrilling, easy to understand and help drive our sport’s competition to a whole new level.”

Here’s a breakdown on how the new format shakes out:

1) The Chase field will increase in size from 12 to 16 drivers. There will no longer be two wild card entries that make the Chase.

2) A win in the first 26 races all but guarantees a driver a berth in the 10-race Chase.

3) The top 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races earn an automatic berth in what is being called the NASCAR Chase Grid – provided they leave Richmond, the 26th race, in the top 30 in points and have attempted to qualify for every race up to that point on the schedule.

4) If there are 16 or more different winners in the first 26 races, the only winless driver who can earn a berth would be the points leader after Richmond. For example, if Jeff Gordon goes through the first 26 races without a win but is the points leader after Richmond, he would be the only winless driver to qualify for the Chase.

5) If there are fewer than 16 race winners in the first 26 races, the 16-driver Chase field would be filled out with winless drivers with the most points following the first 26 races.

6) The points will be reset to 2,000 after the 16-driver Chase field is finalized following the September race at Richmond.

7) In perhaps the biggest key difference of the new format, the lowest-ranked four drivers (13th through 16th place) after the first three races will be eliminated from further advancement in the Chase, leaving 12 drivers. There will be a second round of elimination of the next-lowest four drivers (9th through 12th place) after the sixth race of the Chase, and a third round of elimination of the lowest four of the eight (5th through 8th place) remaining championship-eligible drivers after the ninth race. That sets up the biggest battle of the season, a four-driver winner-take-all race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

8) The first three races of the Chase will be known as the Challenger Round (races 27-29). The fourth through sixth races of the Chase will be known as the Contender Round (races 30-32). The seventh through ninth races of the Chase will be known as the Eliminator Round (races 33-35). The final race will be known simply as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (race 36).

9) Any driver that wins a race in the first three Chase races (the Challenger Round) automatically advances to the next round. Likewise, a driver that wins a race in the second round (Contender Round) advances to the third round, and a third-round (Eliminator Round) race winner advances to the four-driver final round (Sprint Cup Championship).

10) If one of the final four drivers wins the season finale at Homestead, he/she is the champion. Otherwise, the highest-finishing driver in the race would then win the championship. One other note about the season-ending race: there will be NO bonus points for laps led. All four drivers will start the race tied in points, with the highest finisher being crowned champion.

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Raikkonen: P4 in Russian GP qualifying ‘better than nothing’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kimi Raikkonen says that qualifying fourth for the Russian Grand Prix is “better than nothing” after struggling to get to grips with his Ferrari SF16-H car at the Sochi Autodrom.

Raikkonen finished fourth in Saturday’s Q3 session, and will move up to third place on the grid for tomorrow’s race thanks to Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.

Despite being in a position to lead the Italian marque’s charge against Mercedes and make the most of Lewis Hamilton’s grid penalty, Raikkonen was far from jubilant after qualifying.

The Finn had been set to take third in Q3, only to make a mistake on his final qualifying lap that meant he was unable to improve his time, leaving him P4 at the checkered flag.

“The whole weekend has been tricky: for whatever reason, I struggled all the time to put one decent lap together,” Raikkonen said.

“In qualifying it was a bit better, but I was still fighting with the front end in a few places. It could have been good enough for a second or a third place on the grid, but on my last lap I completely missed the last corner and slid away.

“Obviously I’m a disappointed with what happened, but considering how difficult it has been, this result it’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing.

“At least we are in third place at the start, we’ll see what happens tomorrow, I think in the race it’s going to be better.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Williams’ updates take Bottas to P2 on Russian GP grid

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Valtteri Bottas’ hopes of ending his difficult start to the 2016 Formula 1 season were given a boost after he qualified third for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday in Sochi.

Bottas scored just seven points in the opening three races of the year, but said earlier this week that he was confident that an upturn in fortunes was not far away.

Williams brought a number of new parts to Sochi for the race in a bid to get back in front of Red Bull in the pecking order, and they appear to have the desired effect in qualifying on Saturday.

Bottas qualified third with teammate Felipe Massa finishing fifth, but both will gain a place on the grid by virtue of Sebastian Vettel’s grid penalty.

“Very good qualifying, really pleased how it all went,” Bottas said.

“This weekend has been very positive. We have some new bits on the car and the car has been feeling better. It’s also a good track for us.

“I’m glad we could maximise the qualifying today. Pleased with that, but it’s tomorrow what counts.

“So far my Sundays haven’t been so great, but I’m sure tomorrow we have a chance to have a good one.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Vettel: No frustration over Ferrari’s lack of reliability

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability problems at the start of the 2016 Formula 1 season, saying “it’s part of racing”.

Ferrari entered 2016 hopeful of mounting a serious challenge to the all-conquering Mercedes team, only for issues on its cars in Australia and Bahrain to limit it to a one-car finish.

Vettel’s plight continued on Friday in Russia when an issue forced him to stop out on track during practice, ultimately resulting in a gearbox change and a grid penalty.

Vettel qualified second at the Sochi Autodrom on Saturday behind pole-sitter Nico Rosberg, but will drop back to seventh for the start of the race.

“Of course I would have liked the gap in the end to have been a bit smaller but we saw in Q2 Nico in particular was very strong getting the lap in,” Vettel said.

“I think for us it was the maximum. We benefitted from what happened to Lewis [Hamilton]. I’m not sure what exactly it was, but it allowed us to go P2 which helps tomorrow with the penalty.

“We’re a bit closer starting on the clean side of the track. I think we can have a good race from there. It should be quite exciting. The car feels good. I think all weekend has been quite strong. We lost some time, but I think we made it up this morning so it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Vettel said that he does not feel frustrated about Ferrari’s reliability issues, saying that there is still a long way to go in the season.

“Not frustrated at all. Obviously it’s not nice if these things happen because they don’t make your life easier,” Vettel said.

“But equally it’s part of racing. These things can happen. They didn’t happen on purpose, they weren’t planned. We’re been pushing very hard to try and catch up which I think especially in race pace we’ve proven already this year.

“Obviously we didn’t have a properly clean race yet this year. Maybe we’ll have tomorrow, you never know, it’s a long race and a long way especially around here. There’s a lot of things that can happen.

“I think we have to wait and see. It’s still April, tomorrow is May, and there’s a long, long way to go. It’s a long championship. It’s important to do your best to get the maximum points every single time and the rest you’ll find out anyway.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton set to start 10th in Russia as luckless run continues

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Lewis Hamilton’s run of bad luck continued in qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday as an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in the final session.

Hamilton has slipped 36 points behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg after the first three races of the 2016 season, with an issue on his power unit forcing him to start last in China two weeks ago.

Hamilton arrived in Sochi hopeful of cutting the gap to Rosberg, and looked set to run the German close for pole position on Saturday afternoon.

After lapping almost half a second slower than Rosberg in Q2, Hamilton was sent back out by Mercedes later in the session despite not being at risk of losing his place in Q3.

It soon unfolded that Hamilton was in fact heading out to test his power unit, and he soon reported a loss of power similar to the one that prevented him from taking part in qualifying for the Chinese GP.

As a result, Mercedes had to bring Hamilton into the pits and end his day after Q2, leaving him 10th in the final qualifying classification.

While Rosberg was able to ease to his second pole position of the season, Hamilton was left deflated, telling reporters: “I went out at the end of Q2 to get a feel and I lost the same power as I lost in China.

“There’s nothing I can do. I never give up.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.