NASCAR Nation must give Austin Dillon a chance to make his own legacy

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As a young boy growing up, I watched a lot of NASCAR on Sunday afternoons and I always pulled for Dale Earnhardt in the famous Richard Childress Racing No. 3 car.

I suppose I was drawn to the whole attitude that both he and that number represented – a tough, determined and strong attitude, no matter the obstacles they faced on the track.

When you’re a 13-year-old boy, you’re subconsciously looking for things you can emulate and the whole “never give up” mystique that Earnhardt and the No. 3 had was something I latched on to. I’m sure millions more felt the same way as I did, and for a much longer time as well.

It’s been 12 years since we lost the seven-time Sprint Cup champion at the 2001 Daytona 500, and with that sad event, the No. 3 also disappeared from NASCAR’s top series. It seemed like that was the right thing.

For so many people, Earnhardt was their knight and the No. 3 was the crest he carried into battle every weekend across the short tracks and superspeedways of the land.

But now, another knight has emerged to bring that crest back.

To the credit of Childress, he has maintained his promise that only a member of either his or Earnhardt’s family would race the No. 3 again in Sprint Cup. And so, the number has now been passed to 23-year-old Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson and the reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” Dillon said today at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Everybody knows who made this number famous. With my grandfather and their friendship, they were able to build something great that will never be touched.

“But we feel like that bringing it back…It’s going to be special. I feel like we’ve put in a lot of hard work and effort and the shop, and we’re prepared for everything that’s to come.”

As for Childress, he knows that today’s news won’t go over well with some of the more fervent fans in NASCAR’s base that either believe the No. 3 should not be used again or that Dillon is somehow not worthy of it.

But in his mind, he believes that Dillon will be up to the challenge – and that Earnhardt would be happy to see the No. 3 hit the track again.

“I know in my heart today, as I sit here, [that] Dale Earnhardt is smiling down,” said Childress. “He would want to see this 3 [on-track]. He didn’t ever want to see this go away.

“I felt it was the thing to do right after Daytona, and I know today that he’s accepting this highly. I knew him that well.”

Both Austin and his brother, Ty, have raced the No. 3 in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series in recent years, and Austin has won titles in both of those categories while carrying it on the side of his machine.

Now, he’ll carry it as he sets out to claim Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2014. But perhaps more importantly, he’s also setting out to create his own stellar legacy with the No. 3.

And that’s something everyone needs to let him do. NASCAR Nation will surely be tempted to compare Dillon to Earnhardt, but at this point in time especially, such comparisons are utterly ridiculous to make.

Dillon currently has just 13 Cup starts under his belt and will need time to find his way in the series. A situation such as this will always bring pressure – and that’s something Dillon has accepted whole-heartedly – but to heap an inordinate amount of that on his shoulders is not doing him any favors.

This much needs to be recognized: Dillon will never be “The Intimidator.” His tale will be different. But it’s his to write, and with the talent he has shown through the Trucks and in Nationwide, he’s got an opportunity to make it great in the years ahead.

After all, Dillon is one of just a handful of drivers to have won titles in two of the three NASCAR national series. No one has ever won titles in all three of them.

And something tells me that if Dillon ever wins a Cup title in the No. 3, all of this talk about how he’s not deserving of that number will disappear for good.

“It would mean the world to me,” Dillon said of possibly becoming a Cup champion in the future. “That’s what you set your goal as: To be a Cup champion one day…From being a little kid, that’s what you want to do is run at this level and then have a chance at a championship.

“I believe RCR will give us every ounce of effort we need to win championships, and we’ll build on our experience and look forward to that.”

In the meantime, we need to take a step back, resist snap judgments, and let his story be written.

Even without racing, IndyCar has a busy 2017-’18 offseason ahead

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So, there’s been a full week now complete since the Verizon IndyCar Series season ended at Sonoma Raceway. The offseason is now underway.

Almost all the first round of pieces have been written or filmed in the wake of Josef Newgarden’s popular first championship, achieved in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Meanwhile official news has been sparse, but figures to intensify in the coming weeks as teams need to fill seats.

And with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit now set for its final test in INDYCAR’s hands on Tuesday at Sebring International Raceway’s short course – the closest thing IndyCar has to a street course simulation – testing the new car will be a major topic over the months ahead.

Here’s what’s on tap for IndyCar’s offseason ahead:

TESTING, TESTING, 1…2…3…

Juan Pablo Montoya in the new 2018 IndyCar. Photo: IndyCar

As noted above, tomorrow marks the final day INDYCAR will run the testing program of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit at Sebring’s short course, before the new kits and cars are delivered to manufacturers Honda and Chevrolet for the next couple months of testing.

Team Penske (Chevrolet, Juan Pablo Montoya) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Honda, Oriol Servia) have operated the cars but with INDYCAR itself dictating the testing program through the first three tests done in July and August on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (super speedway), Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (road course) and Iowa Speedway (short oval).

From here, Chevrolet and Honda have six tests each with the car through mid-November, before team testing begins in January, 2018. Teams such as Chip Ganassi Racing (Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (Chevrolet) will be those running the cars as part of the manufacturer testing program.

Part of the reason Spencer Pigot was confirmed by ECR as early as he was for 2018 was so that he could be part of this degree of manufacturer testing, and that’s good news for him in his development process. Pigot has already excelled driving one new car when it was introduced – the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in its first season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires – and will now have his first full offseason to do IndyCar testing of its new car. Pigot has also helped to develop sports cars for Mazda in its prototype program the last couple years. Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, will have a key role to play for Chevrolet’s testing in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday at Sebring.

Ganassi has only formally confirmed Scott Dixon as part of its 2018 lineup so any new driver would be testing later, once confirmed. Ganassi managing director Mike Hull outlined the testing process over the coming months below.

2018 SCHEDULE RELEASE IMMINENT

The good news for Verizon IndyCar Series fans is that most of the 2018 IndyCar calendar is known already, via dates released either from tracks themselves or other series set to compete at said tracks.

The lone hold-up for the full release, which was expected out this week but NBC Sports now understands will be held a bit further, is whether Mexico will be added as an 18th race along with the 17 races set to return next year.

Given that country’s situation with its massive 7.1 earthquake on Sept. 19 and its associated aftershocks, it’s not a shock that the country has slightly bigger issues to press on with at the moment.

And the good news we’ve discovered in our talks with INDYCAR officials is that we’re heading into a schedule release without a large number of lingering questions. The schedule stability and date equity assembled over the last couple years has been a welcome contrast to the fluidity in years previous.

Along with the 2018 schedule, movement on IndyCar’s future TV direction and entitlement sponsorship are likely to be big items behind-the-scenes at the INDYCAR offices. The current TV contract with NBCSN and ABC ends after 2018, as does Verizon’s tenure as title sponsor.

OFFICIAL CONFIRMATIONS AT/OF CERTAIN TEAMS

Most of the Verizon IndyCar Series field is set for 2018 (silly season update one, post-Mid-Ohio and two, during Sonoma). There are 13 driver/team combinations made official thus far:

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Tony Kanaan, driver of the #10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, speaks with James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, during qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Beyond that, there are a wealth of “all but official” scenarios including:

  • James Hinchcliffe all but set to stay with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
  • Tony Kanaan set to move to Foyt
  • Ed Jones planning to re-up with Coyne
  • Max Chilton, Carlin announcing a likely step-up
  • Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing locking down its program
  • Brendon Hartley moving from sports cars into Ganassi
  • Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser confirming his team choice

What that means on Sept. 25 is that realistically there’s only three or four rides for 2018 yet to be determined if all those “all but official” scenarios become official in the coming weeks. Those would be the second seats at SPM and Foyt, the likely second seat at Carlin and the road/street course seat at Carpenter.

Like Harding and Carlin, Juncos Racing is also poised to run at least some IndyCar races, but whether it’s a full-season remains to be seen. And like Carlin and Juncos, there’s a wealth of Indy Lights drivers keen to make their way into IndyCar.

As it is, the fact most of the IndyCar grid is known or almost set before October 1 – even if many programs haven’t been officially announced – is both rare and awesome to see at the same time. Teams need as much time to test their drivers with the new kits in the offseason, and so there’s been a mad rush to get next year locked down ASAP.

It seems hard to believe, but the days of “TBA” appearing on an IndyCar entry list days before St. Petersburg may be at an end.

HELIO’S OFFICIALLY UNOFFICIAL SWAN SONG

What a couple weeks it’s been for Helio Castroneves. Despite yet another top-five finish in the championship, Castroneves’ Sonoma race felt like a goodbye to full-time competition in IndyCar, especially as he thanked members of the media in the race’s aftermath.

Still, reports emerged heading into the weekend a fourth car full-time with Team Penske was still on the table. And partners Hitachi and Pennzoil also tweeted about Castroneves and his excellent season, which Castroneves re-tweeted.

Castroneves has tested Team Penske’s new Acura ARX-05 sports car last week (video below) and his departure from full-time driving in IndyCar seems all but inevitable at this point.

Despite Castroneves’ best efforts, it appears as though he’s had his swan song. He’ll be an asset to the Penske Acura program provided he winds up there, but IndyCar would feel his loss on the full-time grid. He’s been someone to appreciate for 20 years, the last 18 at Team Penske.

This is VERY interesting!! Oia isso!!

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OTHER INDYCAR DRIVERS IN SPORTS CARS

With Motul Petit Le Mans set for October 7, at least three IndyCar drivers – Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay – will be in action at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Road Atlanta. Dixon and Bourdais will be third drivers in Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs while Hunter-Reay will be third driver in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, with the Taylor brothers.

Petit Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona always offer up a bevy of IndyCar drivers making guest appearances in sports car land. The latter event, with Team Penske premiering the aforementioned Acura ARX-05 there, figures to have a wealth of IndyCar interest – and quite likely IndyCar drivers – split among its two cars.

WHAT OFFSEASON FUN, ANTICS ARE IN STORE?

Last year, IndyCar had James Hinchcliffe on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” to carry it through the offseason.

Some of the other items IndyCar has released in recent years included Damien Power’s offbeat “Exclusive: Behind the Scenes” interview series with drivers in 2015 and “The Offseason” digital shorts as modeled after NBC’s “The Office.”

There’s usually some degree of entertainment, fun and games that emerges from the IndyCar offices over the offseason and what the creative minds there come up with will be interesting to see.

Or, there’s always more Visor Cam, which was utilized in-race this year starting at the Indianapolis 500 through to the Sonoma finale. Thanks to IMS Productions, this was one of racing’s coolest innovations in years. Considering how much testing is scheduled, some more Visor Cam would easily satisfy the appetite of the IndyCar fan base heading into the five or six-month period without IndyCar racing.

MRTI’S OFFSEASON PLANS

We’ll have more on this separately, but the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires also has a bit to look forward to this offseason. The two key items are the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test, the traditional event that takes place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course October 20-22, and the delivery and debut for teams with the new Tatuus PM-18 chassis in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series. Some teams have taken delivery of those now in anticipation of running next month.

Driver movement will also be afoot there as the next generation of IndyCar drivers seek to position themselves for 2019 and beyond.

IndyCar world comes to Nazareth for Marco Andretti’s wedding

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Fresh off the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, a large percentage of the field made its return to Nazareth to celebrate Marco Andretti and Marta Krupa’s wedding.

Andretti, who turned 30 in March, wed his longtime girlfriend on Saturday in his and his Andretti family’s hometown.

The Andrettis are one of racing’s elite families and judging by a number of driver posts on Instagram, it looked like they put on an incredible night.

“We did the damn thing!” Andretti posted on Instagram, one of several driver posts on Instagram.

We did the damn thing !!!

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@freaks4live killed it for us last night.

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Other drivers included Andretti’s close friends James Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi along with Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay, among others.

A number of social posts are below.

Congrats @marcoandretti @marta_krupa ! We love you guys #WeddingSeason #MK2MA

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Great night with these guys. Congratulations to Marta and Marco #mk2ma

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This picture pretty much sums up our night!!! Pinky out @tkanaan 🥂🕺🏻#mk2ma

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🇺🇸 Great night with great friends. 🇧🇷 Noite agradável com ótimos amigos.

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NEWGARDEN SPENDS WEEKEND AS A WEDDING OFFICIANT

Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, meanwhile, had a wedding of his own to attend to this weekend – one he was a part of in an entirely different manner.

Newgarden’s longtime friends Nicholas Jordon Love and Katie Donnar got married this weekend in Indianapolis and Newgarden, who had arrived in the city a couple days earlier as part of his championship media tour, was the wedding officiant/celebrant.

A couple photos of that are below.

"Some souls just understand each other upon meeting." n.r. hart

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Fitting that both Andretti and Newgarden would be involved with weddings only a week after both celebrated milestone starts in their IndyCar careers – Andretti’s 200th, and Newgarden’s 100th.

Final Malaysian Grand Prix comes up this week on NBCSN

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Formula 1 has six races remaining this year and four of them in the month of October, with two sets of back-to-back races coming up.

First on that list is F1’s final trip to the Sepang International Circuit at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, for the 19th and last scheduled Malaysian Grand Prix.

The circuit announced earlier this year due to rising costs that it would end its contract one year early.

So if you’re a night owl or early riser, you can watch all the Malaysian Grand Prix sessions live via NBCSN and/or the NBC Sports App. On NBCSN, free practice two is on Friday, Sept. 29, at 3 a.m. ET, qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 30 at 5 a.m. ET and pre-race coverage Sunday, Oct. 1 at 2 a.m. leading into lights out at 3 a.m. ET. Free practices one and three are on the NBC Sports App.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas team has, surprisingly, won only once in Malaysia in its history when Lewis Hamilton won in 2014. That’s also Hamilton’s only win here. But this was the site of his first podium for Mercedes, third in 2013 behind the Red Bull pairing of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Vettel having prevailed that day in the infamous “Multi 21” team orders controversy.

A devastating engine failure for Hamilton this race last year was the death knell in his title hopes for the season, and opened the door for Daniel Ricciardo to take a surprise win for Red Bull Racing.

Vettel, who is now on the back foot in this year’s championship fight after he, teammate Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen all collided on the run to the first turn in Singapore, is the active wins leader at Malaysia with four triumphs (2015 with Ferrari; 2010, 2011, 2013 with Red Bull).

Hamilton leads Vettel by 28 points with six races remaining as a result of Hamilton’s win and Vettel’s DNF in Singapore.

Raikkonen is twice a winner in Malaysia, having taken his maiden Grand Prix win here in 2003 with McLaren Mercedes and adding a second triumph with Ferrari in 2008.

Fernando Alonso, who became F1’s youngest polesitter at the time in that 2003 race, is the other active winner in the field, having won three times for three different teams (2005 with Renault, 2007 with McLaren and 2012 with Ferrari).

Ricciardo’s win here last year was a Red Bull 1-2 over Verstappen – the team’s most recent 1-2 finish.

Here’s the schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Thursday, Sept. 28, 11 p.m.-12:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, Sept. 29, 3 a.m.-4:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 2 (Replay): Friday, Sept. 29, 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, Sept. 30, 2 a.m.-3 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, Sept. 30, 5 a.m.-6:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 2 a.m.-3 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 3 a.m.-5 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, Oct. 1, 5 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, Oct. 1, 9 p.m.-11 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Monday, Oct. 2, 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

The next race is the Japanese Grand Prix, on October 8.

Alonso’s Honda power unit cleared for Malaysia after Singapore clash

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Fernando Alonso’s incredible start at the Singapore Grand Prix offered the possibility of huge points, before he got collected at Turn 1 in the wake of the Kimi Raikkonen, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel start-line crash.

But with Alonso’s McLaren Honda getting speared on the left side of the car, there were concerns his Honda power unit had been damaged beyond repair ahead of this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Somewhat fortunately considering the fractured and now set-for-divorce Alonso, McLaren and Honda relationship, Honda has confirmed this power unit was actually OK despite the first lap contact in Singapore.

“We were concerned that it may have been irreparably damaged, but fortunately after a thorough check back at the Sakura factory we can confirm it is okay to be re-used,” said Yusuke Hasegawa, Honda R&D Co. Ltd Head of F1 Project & Executive Chief Engineer.

Alonso, of course quite frustrated to have lost out on a potential big points haul in Singapore, is hoping similarly changeable conditions could give McLaren Honda a spark in Malaysia this weekend. Stoffel Vandoorne fortunately picked up six points for the team with seventh place there, his best result of the season and his career thus far.

“After Singapore, I’m already eager to get back into the car and hopefully make it further than the first corner in Malaysia! Of course, what happened was disappointing and it’s difficult to hide your frustration when you’re the victim of someone else’s incident. I felt we had the potential to be really competitive – one of our only opportunities of the year – and it’s a shame we couldn’t bring home the points to prove it, but these things happen,” he said.

“The conditions in Malaysia will be very similar to Singapore – hot, humid and challenging for the drivers and the car. The configuration will work less in our favor, but of course we will still fight for everything. There are six races left and we are still putting all our energy in finishing every race in the best possible position we can.”