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What to watch for: United States Grand Prix (NBC, NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET)

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Sunday marks one of the biggest dates on the American motorsport calendar as Formula 1 hits the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas for the United States Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton continued his strong record in the U.S. on Saturday in Austin by taking his ninth pole position of the season, edging out Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by two-tenths of a second in the Q3 shootout.

Remarkably, it was Hamilton’s first COTA pole despite being a three-time winner in Texas, giving him a much-needed boost as he looks to get his championship bid back on-track after losing ground on Rosberg in recent weeks.

Rosberg will start alongside his title rival on the grid, setting the stage for another all-Mercedes tussle for the third year in a row at COTA.

With a variety of strategies on offer, Sunday’s race should be full of unpredictability. It may have to go some way to match the madness of the 2015 edition – but at least things should be a little drier for those on the ground at COTA this time around…

You can watch the United States Grand Prix live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2:30pm ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here is our complete raceday preview for the United States Grand Prix.

2016 United States Grand Prix – What to watch for

Nothing for Lewis to lose

Lewis Hamilton will know that, even with a clean sweep of victories between now and the end of the season, a fourth world title is by no means guaranteed. The damage to his title bid has already been done, placing it in Nico Rosberg’s hands.

As a result, Hamilton will go into Sunday’s race knowing he has nothing to lose. The first corner squeeze with Rosberg last year stoked tension, so keep an eye out for a similar move this time around from either party.

In reality, this should be Hamilton’s race to lose. His record at COTA is such that, barring another issue, the rest of the pack may not get close. Time for him to rediscover his form and end his win drought.

Tactics from Rosberg?

Rosberg’s ‘one race at a time’ approach to this year’s title may have been somewhat tiresome, but it appears to be doing the trick. 33 points clear with 100 left on the table – this championship is his to lose.

The German has made a habit of impressing at tracks he’d previously struggled at this year. Wins in Australia, Bahrain, China, Russia, Belgium, Italy and Singapore were all ‘firsts’ – and, bar Singapore, all tracks at which Hamilton won in 2015. They’re big gains to have been made in the title battle.

It’s unlikely Rosberg will want to settle for second at COTA, but if he isn’t ahead at the start, it may be the safest thing to do. If, however, he makes a cleaner getaway and is able to throw his car up the inside at Turn 1, he could deal yet another blow to Hamilton’s already-faint title hopes.

Verstappen a contender on strategy?

Red Bull’s long run pace on Friday was, to quote Daniel Ricciardo, “delicious”, stoking hopes that the team may be able to take the fight to Mercedes at COTA.

Realistically, its best chance of doing so lies with Max Verstappen, who followed the Mercedes drivers on strategy and will start the race on the soft compound tire. A one-stop (soft to medium) is definitely possible for the trio – throw in a safety car, and Verstappen may be able to take the fight to Hamilton and Rosberg.

Ricciardo must not be discounted though. We saw in Singapore how effective an extra stop switching to the qualifying tire can be – could he charge through and take a popular COTA victory?

Haas’ homecoming holds little promise

Hopes were high for Haas ahead of its first home grand prix weekend, but it has proven to be something of a disaster thus far. Issues on both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez’s cars in practice hurt the team before it suffered its worst qualifying display since China on Saturday.

Gutierrez will start 14th with Grosjean 17th, leaving Haas with a mountain to climb in the day. Conditions are set to remain dry, and with the midfield battle being so tight, Haas risks being left behind.

Nevertheless, seeing an American team race on American soil will be a sight to behold.

Austin crowd numbers

Following last night’s successful Taylor Swift concert, attention will now turn to the gate figure coming out of COTA. Circuit CEO Bobby Epstein told me that the track is expecting its second-highest attendance this weekend, adding “if this one doesn’t work, nothing will”. Lofty expectations.

Expect to see an awful lot of red, white and blue – and thankfully no umbrellas – in the grandstands on Sunday. There may be no American drivers, but Americans still love their Formula 1.

2016 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

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

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
IMSA
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”