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IndyCar: Who needs to shine at the pair of hot, humid Houston races?

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This weekend is a pivotal weekend for the Verizon IndyCar Series at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, for the pair of races on the docket in the hot, humid but potentially rainy weekend.

Who needs to step up this weekend? We look through a few names to watch:

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 DHL Honda

The Indianapolis 500 champion has had a brutal three-race stretch since, including a doubleheader weekend to forget in Detroit and a mechanical issue pop up in Texas that dropped him to a 19th place finish. Hunter-Reay led the points standings by 40 coming out of the ‘500… he now sits 60 points behind new leader Will Power after a net 100-point loss over three races.

Sebastien Bourdais, No. 11 Mistic KVSH Racing Chevrolet

A former Houston winner, Bourdais hasn’t yet shown the race-winning form I expected coming into this year. He’s made several mistakes and also been penalized way too frequently. Last year the Toronto doubleheader – the second double-race weekend of the season – was his breakthrough, and ideally Houston fills that role for him this year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 National Guard RLL Honda

His starts on street courses this year read like a bad Bingo line: 21, 23, 9, 14. With Luca Filippi brought in the team’s second car this weekend, Rahal has to improve his qualifying game and nail the form that was so good at Detroit Race 1, where he finished second.

Chip Ganassi Racing – both Target Chevrolets, plus the NTT Data and Novo Nordisk Chevrolets

Yes, both Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball bagged podiums last street race at Detroit, but qualifying across the board for the quartet has been less than desirable. Averaging starting positions this year on road and street courses? It’s 9.1 for Scott Dixon, 11.8 for Ryan Briscoe, 12 for Kanaan and 19.8 for Kimball. Dixon won Race 1 here last year and here’s to hoping that the team’s two-day test at Sebring will have again paid dividends.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda

The opposite of the above drivers, Newgarden’s qualifying’s been great this year but through mostly no fault of his own, his results haven’t been. The talented young American either gets good results or good grid positions – rarely both in the same weekend. Driving what is arguably the sexiest looking car on the grid, in the chrome, blue and red Strike colors, it would be great to see Newgarden back on the podium – or at least in the top five – this weekend.

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.