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NASCAR still humming along after last fall’s Richmond scandal

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This weekend, NASCAR returns to the scene of the crime.

The Easter break is over, and the Sprint Cup Series will get back to racing this coming Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway – its first visit to “The Action Track” since America’s most popular form of motorsport was turned upside down.

Last fall at RIR, and with a Chase bid for then-driver Martin Truex Jr. on the line, Michael Waltrip Racing attempted to ensure that he would be involved in the post-season.

With just a handful of laps remaining, MWR driver Clint Bowyer spun out to put the race under caution with seven laps to go. Another MWR driver, Brian Vickers, was then told to pit just prior to the final restart.

For a moment, it looked like the tactics had worked as Truex was able to improve his position enough to make the Chase. But two days later, NASCAR lowered the boom.

Truex was out of the Chase after he (along with Bowyer and Vickers) lost 50 points, enabling Ryan Newman to move into the post-season.

Later, Jeff Gordon – one of those affected by MWR’s maneuver – was also added to the Chase as a 13th driver.

Then loyal sponsor NAPA decided to leave MWR behind after the scandal, later resurfacing as a backer for Nationwide Series young gun Chase Elliott and JR Motorsports.

And so, MWR was forced to downsize to its current two-car form, a third car only appearing on occasion. Truex is now at Furniture Row Racing and crew chief Chad Johnston is now at Stewart-Haas Racing.

The scandal broke at the worst possible time for the sport, as it prepared to enter the 10th year of the Chase format. It wanted to promote but instead had to defend its very credibility.

But as Richmond looms once again, it appears NASCAR has weathered the storm.

Some of the reason for that comes down to Brian France’s swift decision on how to punish MWR after Richmond.

The NASCAR CEO may have been, at his own admission, “pissed off,” at the time, but he was clear-headed enough to know that a reaction from the sanctioning body post-Richmond could not wait.

“It was going to be really tough, especially for the teams that got penalized, losing sponsors; that was no fun for anybody,” he said of the situation in December. “But I knew that our credibility would be preserved if we did the right thing and we acted swiftly.”

NASCAR also caught a break in how the 2013 Chase ultimately played out. Two of the more non-controversial Cup drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth wound up dueling for the title while Bowyer – who kept his Chase spot despite his points penalty – was never really a factor.

Bullet…Make that big bullet…dodged.

With that, NASCAR took the off-season opportunity to unveil yet another revision to the Chase format, which virtually ensures drivers a place in the post-season if they can win in the regular season.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. It took eight races before the first repeat winner of the 2014 season finally emerged with Kevin Harvick at Darlington.

The focus has been on the racing, just as France and his team in Daytona Beach had surely hoped for.

Even if the Richmond visit is sure to conjure memories of last fall’s incident for everyone, that focus likely won’t be supplanted.

Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon hasn’t won yet. Ditto for Johnson and Kenseth, the two main title rivals of one year ago.

Throw in the potential fireworks that always come with close-quarter short track racing, and we should have a good show on tap for Saturday night under the lights.

Life may have gotten a bit hairy for NASCAR, but things are humming along now.

Tire woes leave Haas down the grid in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo comes back onto the 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)
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Tire woes throughout practice and qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix left Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez down the grid ahead of Sunday’s race in Sochi.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous F1 operation come back down to earth in China two weeks ago when its run of points finishes since debut came to an end.

Grosjean and Gutierrez arrived in Russia hopeful of getting back into the top 10, but both struggled to get temperature into their tires throughout qualifying.

Low temperatures and a green track surface hit all of the teams hard in Sochi, yet Haas seemed more affected than others as Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified 15th and 16th respectively.

“It’s been a complicated weekend so far for us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve been struggling with the grip and the car. It’s difficult to get the tire to work on such a smooth asphalt. We’re progressing, we’re learning and doing the most we can do.

“I still don’t have the feeling I used to have earlier in the season with the car. We really need to analyze that. Then tomorrow’s going to be a long race with a lot of fuel saving. The tires are hard to keep in the window, so it’s going to be challenging for everyone.

“Maybe we can try to be a bit more clever. Let’s do our best, let’s analyse and let’s keep having some interesting data. We’ll see where we are after the race.”

Gutierrez enters Sunday’s race still chasing his first F1 points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, and admitted that Haas needs a few surprises to be in with a chance of reaching the top 10.

“Qualifying was pretty hard. It was difficult to get the tires to work here so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” Gutierrez said.

“I was doing my best, with all the options we have available, to maximize everything but I’m not really satisfied with the result.

“However, we still have a race to do tomorrow. Hopefully a few surprises may come our way that will give us a chance to be up in the points.

“It’s probably not going to be very straightforward, as the pace is not as good as we want it to be, but we will definitely push hard and do our best to get there.”

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

Lowe: Mercedes let Hamilton down

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe says that the team let Lewis Hamilton down after he suffered a power unit failure for the second race weekend in a row during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton was forced to start last in China two weeks ago after an issue on his power unit prevented him from posting a time during qualifying.

Although he did take part in both Q1 and Q2 on Saturday in Russia, a repeat of the issue on the same power unit meant that Hamilton could not run in Q3.

As a result, Hamilton will start 10th on the grid for the start in Sochi – and only if Mercedes makes no changes to his car.

While teammate and championship leader Nico Rosberg was able to sweep to pole position, Hamilton was left to prepare for yet another fightback drive on Sunday.

“Our day has been tainted by a failure which deprived Lewis of a shot at pole – and deprived the fans of what would surely have been a thrilling climax to an immensely close battle between our two drivers,” Lowe said after the session.

“We’ve let Lewis down for the second weekend in a row, so our apologies go to him once again. It’s a cruel twist of fate that, out of eight Mercedes-Benz Power Units on the grid, the problem should befall the same driver twice.

“We’ve been working very hard over the past couple of weeks to understand what happened in China – but unfortunately there is clearly still more work to be done.

“Our focus for the immediate future, however, is on making sure Lewis’ car is in the best possible condition for tomorrow’s race to give him the best chance of making the kind of strong recovery we’ve seen him pull off so many times in the past.”

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

Hamilton reprimanded for Russia qualifying misdemeanor

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Paddock 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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Lewis Hamilton has been given a reprimand by the FIA stewards for failing to follow the race director’s instructions during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Ahead of the weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had a white bollard placed in the run-off area at Turn 2 to guide drivers where to go if they ran wide at the corner.

The idea was used successfully in Canada last year, and forces drivers to pass through the ‘penalty zone’ that ensures they do not gain an advantage by running wide.

During Q1, Hamilton ran wide at Turn 2 but failed to pass to the left of the bollard. Although he did not gain an advantage or improve his lap time, the stewards still opted to look into his misdemeanor after qualifying.

Late on Saturday, they confirmed that Hamilton had been handed a reprimand for the incident, marking his second of the season. If he racks up one more, he will receive a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton ultimately finished 10th in qualifying after an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in Q3.

“It’s obviously not a great feeling to be on the sidelines again – but that’s life,” Hamilton said. “I knew there was a problem and that it was probably the same failure that I had in China pretty much straight away. I went out for a second run in Q2 to get a feeler lap and felt the same power loss as last time.

“When it happened in Shanghai it was something we hadn’t seen before and now unfortunately it’s happened again, so we need to understand it. I’ve never been superstitious about these things, though, and I never will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll move on and look ahead to the race.”

Hamilton said that Mercedes was yet to decide whether or not it would make any changes to his power unit overnight that may result in him receiving another penalty.

“I don’t know where I’m going to start yet – we’ll wait to see how that unfolds,” Hamilton said.

“But I never give up and I’ll give it all I’ve got to recover whatever I can in the race, like always. It’s not an easy track for overtaking. With the levels of tire degradation and it being so tough to follow here, it’s not going to be easy to make my way forward.

“But there are long straights and we’ve got good pace, so if I can keep the car in one piece I’ll be fighting for decent points I’m sure.”

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

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.