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NASCAR introduces new group qualifying procedures today at Phoenix

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NASCAR will debut its new group qualifying procedures today at Phoenix International Raceway.

Somewhat influenced by Formula One’s qualifying procedures, the new Sprint Cup Coors Light Qualifying begins at 6:30 pm ET at PIR.

Unofficially known as “the pack is back” (and no, that’s not a reference to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers), the new procedures replace NASCAR’s former one car at a time qualifying. Last Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 was the last time solo one-car qualifying will be seen for a Cup race.

The new qualifying system may be a bit confusing to fans at first, but they should quickly get the hang of it.

Essentially, tracks that are less than 1.25 miles, such as Phoenix, Bristol, Martinsville, New Hampshire and Richmond, will see two qualifying rounds. The first will last 30 minutes, with all cars expected to be on the track.

The fastest 12 drivers in the first round will then move to a 10-minute second round, which will determine the pole sitter. The other cars will be placed on the starting grid based upon their best single qualifying lap during either the first or second sessions.

At tracks longer than 1.25 miles, such as next week’s race host, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there will be three rounds of qualifying.

The first round will feature all entries and will take 25 minutes.

The 10-minute second round will be the 24 fastest from the first round.

The third and final round will have the 12 fastest from the second round vying for No. 1 qualifier over a brief five-minute session.

The same qualifying procedures will also be used for both the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series.

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Vettel lets loose on radio after being taken out by Kvyat (VIDEO)

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Sebastian Vettel was left fuming with Daniil Kvyat after clashing with the Red Bull youngster for the second race in a row in Russia on Sunday.

Vettel complained about Kvyat’s antics off the line in China, saying he was “like a torpedo”, but both managed to finish on the podium.

However, Vettel’s Russian Grand Prix lasted just three corners after Kvyat hit him twice – once from behind at Turn 2 and again midway through Turn 3 – to send the German into the wall.

For Vettel, it proved to be the latest low point in a tough start to the season that has seen him fail to finish twice already.

After the shunt, Vettel made no secret of his anger over team radio, shouting angrily. However, he was more civil when he returned to the pit lane, although he did pay a visit to Kvyat’s boss, Christian Horner, for a chat midway through the race.

Speaking to NBCSN, Vettel said there was no bad blood with Kvyat, but it didn’t change the fact that he was no longer in the race.

“I don’t dislike him. I think he did a mistake two weeks ago,” Vettel said.

“Today it’s fairly obvious, he did a mistake again, obviously, it doesn’t help me now because I’m not in the car.

“In the end we’re here to race. Massively pumped up. Had a super start, made progress into the second corner and got hit, then a second hit, which destroyed our race.

“I was quite loud on the radio… but it doesn’t change anything now.”

Wolff praises Hamilton’s resilience and attitude amid struggles

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Mercedes Formula 1 team boss Toto Wolff has praised Lewis Hamilton for his resilience and attitude after suffering yet another setback during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

For the second race in a row, Hamilton was sidelined in qualifying by an issue on his power unit that means he will start today’s race in Sochi from P10 on the grid.

Mercedes was able to fly in the required parts from its engine base in Brixworth, England to Sochi overnight, ensuring that Hamilton will not take a grid penalty.

Hamilton was bitterly disappointed by the issue, while Mercedes technical chief Paddy Lowe said on Saturday that the team had let him down.

Staring down the barrel of a 36-point deficit to Nico Rosberg in the drivers’ championship, Hamilton will be doing everything he can to stop his pole-sitting teammate from extending that lead on Sunday.

“The power unit is a core element of performance and one of our biggest strengths,” Wolff said on Saturday after qualifying.

“We are pushing hard to find lap time in every area and it’s inevitable that sometimes you reach limits in that process.

“Lewis has handled everything so far this year with calm and professionalism. He is resilient and showing a great attitude, even though this is a tough time for him.

“For tomorrow, it’s clear we are in a strong position in terms of performance. But like the saying goes, to finish first, first you have to finish…”

WATCH LIVE: Russian GP on CNBC, Live Extra from 7am ET

during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
© Getty Images
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Nico Rosberg will line up on the grid for today’s Russian Grand Prix knowing that a seventh straight grand prix victory and a championship lead of over 40 points are well within his grasp.

The German driver swept to his second pole position of the year on Saturday with a fuss-free display, taking advantage of the bad luck that befell Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton.

In a repeat of the power unit issue that saw him fail to take any part in qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix two weeks ago, Hamilton was forced to sit out Q3, leaving him 10th on the grid for today’s race.

With Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel also dropping back by virtue of a grid penalty for a gearbox change, Rosberg’s main rivals are now out of the picture. But can he keep his cool and win his first Russian Grand Prix?

You can watch the Russian Grand Prix live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground in Sochi, Russia.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race, which kicks off at 8am ET at the Sochi Autodrom.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Russian Grand Prix (CNBC, Live Extra from 7am ET)

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29:  Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) 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)
© Getty Images
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If Nico Rosberg thought that all of his good luck had been used up in the first three races of the season, he was sorely mistaken.

The German driver arrived in Russia with a 36-point lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship thanks to his own flawless displays and the Briton’s tough start to the year.

Hamilton said in China that he wanted the “dark cloud” hanging over him to pass, but it showed few signs of doing so on Saturday in Sochi when a repeat of his power unit failure in China left him P10 on the grid.

With Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel also dropping to seventh on the grid, two of Rosberg’s biggest rivals are realistically out of the picture for the race win.

Standing on the brink of a 40+ point lead in the championship and a seventh straight victory, can Nico handle the pressure?

2016 Russian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Nico’s race to lose

With tire wear typically low at the Sochi Autodrom and overtaking coming at a premium around the tight layout, it seems impossible to think that Nico Rosberg won’t win the race.

Relying he makes a good start and can stay ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen around him, Rosberg should be able to storm to his seventh straight victory. Mercedes’ pace has been well clear of its rivals all weekend along too.

Rosberg’s biggest strength is being calm under pressure; simply getting the job done with little fuss. If he can just do it again on Sunday, his championship lead will be over 40 points – a big mountain to climb for Hamilton.

Who can beat Rosberg?

Realistically? Only Rosberg himself. Mercedes’ reliability has been a big talking point in recent weeks given Hamilton’s struggles, so it is likely that keeping Rosberg’s car running will be a worry for the German marque.

Hamilton is a fighter and will hope to battle his way into contention for the race win, but without a safety car, it is hard to see him being able to rival his teammate.

Otherwise, Raikkonen and Bottas will hope to get the jump at the start, yet with both Ferrari and Williams struggling to keep up with Mercedes so far this weekend, any advantage may be short lived.

This is Rosberg’s race to lose.

Damage limitation the focus for Hamilton… again…

“If he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all” is a cliched, meaningless saying – yet it applies quite well to Lewis Hamilton at the moment. His start to the season has been miserable, with incident after incident stopping him from even thinking about a race win.

Hamilton has not gone wheel-to-wheel with Rosberg yet this season, but it makes no difference mathematically. He still trails by 36 points, and will likely trail by even more by the end of the day.

As a result, Hamilton will be focusing on damage limitation once again. The podium should be within reach considering the pace of the W07 Hybrid, but he’ll need a clean race to get there.

On-track battles key with lack of strategy variety

Tire wear around the Sochi Autodrom has always been low, and this year is no different. With Pirelli opting against bringing the ultra-soft tire to the race, we look set for a one-stopper yet again with the super-soft and soft compounds.

As a result, we are unlikely to get the kind of variety that we have seen in the opening three races with strategy. Track position will be key in the on-track battles, but with the midfield still so tightly knit, there will hopefully be no shortage of action in today’s race.

Haas hopes to bounce back

Haas’ F1 honeymoon came to an end in China two weeks ago when Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez endured miserable races, with the setup of the VF-16 car never quite gelling with the track.

Both struggled once again in qualifying in Sochi, ailing to P15 and P16 on the grid respectively. Strategy has been a big strength for the American team so far this year, but again, this is unlikely to be worth much in Sochi.

With a few surprises, perhaps Haas will bounce back. But it seems somewhat unlikely should we have a ‘normal’ race.

2016 Russian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Valtteri Bottas Williams
3. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Felipe Massa Williams
5. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
6. Sergio Perez Force India
7. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari*
8. Daniil Kvyat Red Bull
9. Max Verstasppen Toro Rosso
10. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
11. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
12. Jenson Button McLaren
13. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
14. Fernando Alonso McLaren
15. Romain Grosjean Haas
16. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
17. Kevin Magnussen Renault
18. Jolyon Palmer Renault
19. Felipe Nasr Sauber
20. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
21. Rio Haryanto Manor
22. Marcus Ericsson Sauber

* grid penalty

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