Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 34-race restrictor plate track drought Saturday at Daytona?

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. once was the undisputed king of restrictor plate racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

From 2001 to 2004, Earnhardt won seven plate races. Five came at Talladega Superspeedway (including four in a row from 2001 to 2003).

Two other wins came at Daytona International Speedway: the 2001 Pepsi 400, an emotional homage to his father, who was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 less than five months earlier, as well as the 2004 Daytona 500.

But Junior has not won a plate race in nearly nine years, the last being in October 2004 at Talladega.

Add it up and he hasn’t won a restrictor plate race in his last 34 attempts!

Sure, he’s come close with three runner-up and three other third-place finishes at Daytona, and a runner-up at Talladega, but the fact remains he isn’t the plate racer he once was.

And no one knows that better than Junior.

“We’ve come awfully close trying to win the 500 in the last few years,” Earnhardt said during his weekly media availability Thursday at Daytona. “We’ve been finishing well, but haven’t really been able to figure out what I need to do to get into first place on the last lap.

“We’ve had no problem finding our way to the front, but not been able to overtake the leaders. So, I think we might need to try to be at a better position sooner, where we’re not having to have to do so much right at the end of the race and not have an opportunity to challenge for the win.”

As he prepares for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt knows what he has to do in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – both in the race itself as well as for the remainder of the season as he once again continues to chase his first Sprint Cup championship.

“Maybe throughout the race trying to be a little more proactive toward improving track position, being a little more aggressive just trying to improve track position might be in our best interest if we want to try to have a shot at winning,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt was aggressive earlier this season, with finishes of second (Daytona 500), fifth, seventh, sixth and second (Fontana) in his first five starts. In fact, Earnhardt even was No. 1 in the Sprint Cup standings after Fontana – albeit for just one week.

But in the last seven weeks, Earnhardt hasn’t had the same kind of performance as earlier in the season, battling inconsistency and, surprisingly, engine issues in at least two races.

As a result, he’s dropped from third to a season-low of seventh before climbing back to sixth place in the weekly standings the last two weeks.

He’s looking to climb back up even further Saturday and has his strategy already set in his mind.

“Being aggressive and trying to get track position or make track position happen or move forward, just mentally aggressive, not out there driving in the side of everybody, more so, just trying to force myself to take a few more chances,” Earnhardt said.

One other thing that Earnhardt, who hasn’t won a race now in more than a year, will likely change for Saturday: to make what he hopes is his race-winning kick a little bit sooner than he typically does.

“You just continue to leap frog one at a time, but that one guy you aren’t successful with (as a drafting partner) you go all the way to the back,” he said. “It’s a gamble, but maybe if you want to win the race, I’ve got to be further ahead than fourth on the last lap.

“We had enough race car to win the (Daytona) 500 and just ran out of laps. I need to be a little further forward to be able to have that shot.”

(By the way, in case you want to take a trip back memory lane to see Junior’s last plate race win, here it is:)

Maverick Vinales wins MotoGP opener in Qatar after rain delays start

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Maverick Viñales made a flying start to life with Yamaha in MotoGP by winning on his debut with the factory team in Qatar on Sunday night.

Rain throughout the weekend had already forced qualifying to be cancelled on Saturday, with Viñales claiming pole by virtue of setting the fastest time in practice.

Officials decided early on Sunday that they would not be amending its schedule for races, with the Moto2 and Moto3 events going ahead as planned.

Just minutes before the MotoGP race was set to get underway at 11pm local time, rain started to fall once again over the Losail International Circuit, prompting the stewards to delay the race start after a number of riders went off during an installation lap.

A 45-minute delay followed as a number of officials from both MotoGP and the teams remonstrated on the grid before being asked to take their discussions inside, away from the cameras and the watching world.

With the rain easing to a light drizzle, the stewards confirmed the race would start as planned, albeit reduced to 20 laps.

On a moist track, Viñales made a tentative start from pole, dropping to fifth as Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone made the best getaway to lead into the first corner.

Iannone was quickly passed by Tech3’s Johann Zarco, who completed his first lap in MotoGP as the race leader, and soon began to forge a lead over the chasing pack.

Zarco’s hopes of a debut win were dashed when he slid off the track in the tricky conditions, allowing Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso to assume the lead ahead of Iannone.

When Iannone fell and third-placed Marc Marquez began to drop off the pace as his tires faded, Viñales and Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi began to close on Dovizioso, setting up a grandstand finish.

Viñales found a way past Dovizioso, only to lose the lead a couple of laps later, before then taking it back with two laps to go, curbing the Ducati’s straight-line speed advantage as they headed into Turn 1 for the final time.

From there, Viñales was able to keep his cool and cross the line half a second clear of Dovizioso to record his second MotoGP victory, his first coming with Suzuki last year at Silverstone.

Rossi crossed the line a close third, much to his surprise after a torrid pre-season, while Marquez was left to settle for fourth place to begin his riders’ title defence.

Dani Pedrosa finished one place behind his Honda teammate in fifth, while Aleix Espargaro was one of the unsung heroes of the race, crossing the line sixth for Aprilia.

Scott Redding wound up seventh ahead of Jack Miller and Alex Rins, while Tech3 debutant Jonas Folger rounded out the top 10.

Three-time MotoGP champion Jorge Lorenzo had a forgettable debut with Ducati, finishing a lowly 11th after an off-track excursion on the opening lap.

The MotoGP season continues with round two of the season in Argentina on April 9.

Ocon picks up maiden F1 point in Australia, finishes as top rookie

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Esteban Ocon picked up his first point in Formula 1 during his maiden outing for Force India in Australia on Sunday, finishing the race 10th and as the top rookie.

Ocon made his F1 debut in Belgium last year with the backmarker Manor team, completing the final nine rounds of the season before moving into a seat with Force India for 2017.

Embarking on his first full season of F1 (and therefore still a rookie) in 2017, Ocon qualified 14th in Australia on Saturday before spending much of the race battling with Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg, the trio going three-wide down the main straight at one point.

Ocon was able to come out on top, clinching the final point on offer in Melbourne by finishing P10 to complete a double-points finish for Force India after Sergio Perez ended up seventh.

“Very happy with today. It’s been a tough weekend but a great reward at the end,” Ocon told NBCSN after the race.

“Fighting with Alonso made things difficult. It was side by side. Then I had the better pace with him. It’s so much harder to overtake, but I made the pass and got the point.

“I’m learning all the time. It’s good what we’ve done here. This is good for the team. We hope we can score many more for the championship.”

Ocon emerged as the top rookie in Melbourne, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Stoffel Vandoorne finishing 12th and 13th respectively. Williams’ Lance Stroll – making his first start in F1 – retired due to a brake disc issue.

F1 Paddock Pass: Australian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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And so, the 2017 Formula 1 season is officially underway with the Australian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are on top, having beat Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both on strategy and on pace to kick off this new era in the sport’s history.

A recap of the day from the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne occurs below in the latest edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series, Paddock Pass, as F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales go into the paddock to run down the stories of the day.

MORE: Full Australian Grand Prix event replay; Mosaic replay

The podium saw Vettel ahead of Hamilton, with Mercedes’ new driver Valtteri Bottas coming third on debut for the team.

Other interviews that occurred during NBCSN’s post-race coverage on F1 Extra included with Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen, who came fourth and fifth respectively, with Force India’s Esteban Ocon who scored his first career point, and with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who doggedly dragged his McLaren Honda into a potential points-paying finish before a late-race retirement.

Paddock Pass is in three parts and can be viewed below.

Haas’ sophomore F1 season starts badly with double DNF in Australia

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The Haas Formula 1 team’s sophomore campaign got off to a bad start on Sunday as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were both forced to retire from the Australian Grand Prix.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, making its debut in Australia 12 months ago.

Grosjean scored a memorable sixth-place finish on that day in Melbourne, and looked poised to repeat the result in 2017 after qualifying sixth on Saturday.

A poor start was Grosjean drop to seventh, but he managed to hold position through the opening stint of the race ahead of the pit stop cycle.

However, Grosjean had no chance to wield some strategic genius as Haas did last year, with a water leak forcing him to retire while inside the top 10.

“I suddenly lost a lot of power. I told the guys, then the next thing I knew I had to slow down the car,” Grosjean explained.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result, but again, right now I’m hot and we’re all disappointed to lose a seventh-place position, but the car was there in qualifying in P6. The start wasn’t ideal, so we need to improve that. I felt I was faster than the Williams, so there’s huge potential in the car.

“I guess the key for us is to keep the momentum and get the consistency we didn’t have last year, where I’d be fifth in Bahrain then 19th in China. I really want to improve on that and get more consistency in terms of results. If we do that, then I’m sure there are going to be plenty of races where we can score good points.”

Grosjean’s new teammate for 2017, Kevin Magnussen, suffered an early setback when he clashed with Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the first lap, and ultimately retired due to a suspension issue stemming from the incident.

“I had Ericsson on the outside and I understeered into the side of him, which was unfortunate. I lost my front wing and damaged the car a little bit,” Magnussen said.

“We changed the front wing and then I went for a long test session to feel the car and learn a bit more about it, which was good. It feels good and the car is fast.

“That’s the really positive thing from this weekend. The car is there. We just have to make it finish and score points.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “Not the race we wished for, or we expected. With Romain it looks like we had a water leak. We don’t know yet where that came from.

“Obviously, Kevin’s race was destroyed in the third corner after the contact with Ericsson. He then ended up later with a suspension failure, which we still have to investigate why.

“The good thing we take out of here is that the car seems to be fast. We need to work on a few parts and, hopefully, we can get back strong again in China in two weeks.”