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Hard to believe: Dale Earnhardt Jr. turns 40 this year — wants to send Steve Letarte out as a winner

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For many, the image of Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been frozen in time since the late 1990s or perhaps his first full season on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2000: that of a young red-haired, cherub-faced kid just excited about life and living the dream of being a NASCAR driver.

But Earnhardt revealed some rather sober and potentially earth-shattering news Tuesday that potentially may shock many members of his legendary Junior Nation of fans:

NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years running is going to turn 40 this year!

October 10, to be precise.

“I think I turned 40 before I was supposed to,” Earnhardt laughed during the second day of the four-day NASCAR Media Tour. “I don’t feel 40, I don’t even feel close to 40. It’s weird for me to say that and I think about it all the time that I’m going to be 40 years old this year, because I don’t feel anything near 40.

“I don’t think I think like a 40 year old man, I still have a lot of immaturity in me and like to have fun and goof off. And I feel in my racing and work ethic and the way I approach what I’m doing and how long I’ve been here, I don’t feel 40.

“I don’t feel burned out, don’t feel worn out, don’t feel like this is old hat, don’t feel bored. I feel like I’m just as excited about Daytona as I’ve ever been each year that I’ve went there. I guess when it gets boring or it’s not as exciting, I’ll start to freak out. Yeah, I don’t feel 40, that’s weird. But maybe that means I’ll last a little bit younger than most guys.”

And if Junior has his way once he hits 40, he plans on racing for another decade, something his loyal fans will likely be happy to hear.

That means there’s still plenty of chances for that elusive first Sprint Cup championship – if not 10 titles in a row potentially (hey, you can’t blame him for being optimistic, right?).

“Ten’s a lot of years and that would be enough,” Earnhardt said. “I think if I retired at 50, I’d be real thrilled that I made it that long.”

While Earnhardt stressed that his main goal in 2014 is to win races – he hasn’t won a Cup race since 2012 and only two since 2006 – winning a championship would be a fitting sendoff and homage to Letarte, who will become a TV analyst for NBC Sports in 2015.

It’s important to send Letarte out on top, Earnhardt said.

“It’s important to me, but hell, it’s part of his responsibility, too,” Earnhardt said with a laugh.

But then, Earnhardt turned more serious on his feeling about Letarte.

“I’m going into the last season with Steve, who I love to work with, and I really want to enjoy that moment, that is, the whole season,” Earnhardt said. “Me and Steve are so close and this is going to be a lot of fun to work with him one more season. I want to make sure it’s one we enjoy and he can be happy when he’s finished and then we can move on and continue to compete.”

And that final farewell season to one of the best crew chiefs he’s had in his career starts in a few weeks, Earnhardt said.

“When we run Daytona, we’re going to run it for the last time, his last Daytona 500 as a crew chief,” Earnhardt said. “We’re going to be working every single lap to try to do the best we can for each other. And I think that’s good, it can elevate our performance and our team.

“I think the team could feed off that and we may be able to accomplish the things we set out to accomplish in this last season together.”

How has Earnhardt changed from a 23-year-old Busch Series driver in 1998 to a 40-year-old, 15-year Cup veteran in 2014? Hardly at all, Earnhardt said.

“I don’t think my personality is anything special or unique in any way, but I think I’m a good guy that tries to make good decisions and tries to treat people right.,” he said. “All the things, the success, star power, celebrity has been just short of a fluke, like an oddity that could have happened to anybody.

“The work ethic is however you want to be at your job, and if you enjoy what you do and want to be successful at it, you’ll work hard to try and do that. I know myself, I’ve learned a lot about work ethic over the last 20 years.

“You get into racing thinking you’re working your guts out, and then you learn there/s another step, and then you learn that there’s another step and you just keep finding more in yourself over a long period of time and look back at all those things you wish you’d known when you were a kid. It could have made things easier.”

Red Bull secures engine deal for 2016 F1 season

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Members of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing team take part in a pit stop practice session during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Red Bull Racing’s engine saga appears to have finally come to an end after team principal Christian Horner confirmed that an agreement had been struck with a supplier for the 2016 Formula 1 season.

Red Bull’s participation in next year’s championship had been uncertain after the team expressed a desire to cut ties with existing supplier Renault over frustrations with the performance of its power unit.

However, the team failed to strike a deal with Mercedes and turned down Ferrari’s offer of a 2015-spec power unit for the new season. Talks were also held with Honda, but this deal was vetoed by McLaren CEO Ron Dennis, forcing Horner to rekindle negotiations with Renault.

A deal appears to have finally been struck that ensures Red Bull will still be racing in 2016, with an announcement due in the near future.

“We have an agreement with an engine for next year which hopefully will be confirmed in the coming days,” Horner is quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Red Bull is thought to have agreed an amendment to its deal with Renault that will allow the team to race with unbadged or rebranded engines in 2016 while the French manufacturer focuses on the impending takeover of Lotus and the revival of its works team.

B-team Toro Rosso is poised to take on 2015-spec Ferrari engines for the new season, ending its relationship with Renault after just two seasons.

Hamilton quickest in opening Abu Dhabi practice

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP returns to the garage during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton kicked off the final race weekend of the 2015 season in impressive fashion by setting the pace first practice in Abu Dhabi on Friday.

With the weekend’s key sessions taking place far later in the day and therefore in different conditions, first practice offered the drivers little in the way of meaningful running ahead of the race.

However, what it did provide was a chance to evaluate some early updates ahead of the 2016 season, acting as a glorified test session that allowed the drivers to head out and get in some laps before turning their focus to race setup in FP2 later today.

Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg led the way once again, with the Briton coming out on top thanks to a lap of 1:43.754 to give him P1 by just over one-tenth of a second.

Hamilton’s session was not without its issues as he narrowly avoided spinning twice before telling the team “my car doesn’t feel good” with a few minutes remaining.

Nevertheless, it was still a strong start from Hamilton as he looks to end Rosberg’s recent resurgence and pick up a first victory since the United States Grand Prix last month.

Ferrari posed the most stringent challenge to the Mercedes drivers once again as Kimi Raikkonen finished six-tenths of a second back in P3. Teammate Sebastian Vettel finished fifth as Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat split the Ferrari drivers.

Daniel Ricciardo underpinned Kvyat’s pace in the sister Red Bull by ending FP1 in seventh place, slotting in between Force India teammates Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Pastor Maldonado and Felipe Massa rounded out the top ten in P9 and P10 respectively.

FP2 will offer the drivers more representative conditions, given that it will start at dusk just as qualifying and the race will, meaning that we are likely to be offered more of an indication of the pecking order.

You can watch second practice for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 8am ET on Friday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (VIDEO)

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks at a press conference next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari, Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda, Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Infiniti Red Bull Racing and Roberto Merhi of Spain and Manor Marussia during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The 2015 Formula 1 season may not have been one for the ages, but it has certainly offered some fascinating and entertaining storylines that will continue to have repercussions as we head into the new year.

Lewis Hamilton may have a third world title under his belt, but the recent good form of Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg suggests that he may face a more stringent challenge to make it a set of four in 2016.

Before we can even begin to think about next year’s championship race though, there are a number of loose ends to be tied up in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

A number of teams’ futures are still up in the air, and while the grid is largely there, questions about the futures of most racing in F1 still linger.

For the final time in 2015, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you all of the latest news, interviews and insight in the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

In part one, we catch up with three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton as he bids to stop Rosberg’s recent resurgence, while Romain Grosjean talks about his impending adventure with Haas F1 Team in 2016 ahead of his last race for Lotus.

We also talk to F1’s unofficial rookie of the year Max Verstappen ahead of his first race under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

Part two features a trio of drivers who haven’t had a year quite as impressive as those in part one. Fernando Alonso and Daniil Kvyat have both been left frustrated by engine woes, while Kimi Raikkonen’s failure to match teammate Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari has raised more than a few question marks. We hear from all three ahead of what is surely a much-welcomed last race of the year.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: Abu Dhabi GP

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP speaks with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda next to Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari at a press confernce during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton may have clinched his third Formula 1 world championship over a month ago now, but there is still plenty to play for as the paddock arrives in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the year.

Nico Rosberg’s resurgence may have been too little, too late for this year’s title fight, but the German driver is currently on a run of form that will undoubtedly make him a contender once again for the 2016 crown.

Abu Dhabi has a knack for the spectacular, running as the only twilight race on the F1 calendar and boasting the Yas Viceroy hotel as its impressive centrepiece – under the lights, the stars come out.

For the final time in 2015, here are the MST team’s picks for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Be sure to let us know in the comments section your thoughts and make your own picks.

For full TV and streaming details ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP weekend, click here.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race WinnerNico Rosberg. Two on the bounce and having finally banished the demons of 2014, I’m tipping Nico to edge Lewis again in Abu Dhabi. It’ll set things up beautifully for 2016.

Surprising FinishMax Verstappen. Abu Dhabi has a habit of producing unpredictable races, so I’m tipping F1’s unofficial rookie of the year to come through strongly once again.

Most to ProveLewis Hamilton. It may be a little harsh to say that the world champion has to prove himself at the last race of the year, but he can’t afford to lose any more ground to Rosberg heading into the winter.

Additional Storyline to Watch: Bon voyage, Romain. After ten years of association with the Enstone operation, Romain Grosjean will bid farewell to Lotus this weekend ahead of his move to Haas in 2016. Grosjean has been the on-track heartbeat of the team through some tough times, so will hopefully get the send-off he deserves.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Nico Rosberg. The talking point from a Mercedes standpoint going into the weekend is one of a psychological match-up. Rosberg’s lost the 2015 season long war, of course, but has firmly gained the upper edge in battle the last two races. For offseason momentum, if there is such a thing, Rosberg stands to gain the most with a third straight win, and even though this is a track Hamilton has dominated at in the past, Rosberg’s riding the hot hand of form right now.

Surprising Finish: Kimi Raikkonen. He’d never say it publicly, but Raikkonen should desperately want to finish ahead of his countryman and recent rival Bottas in the “best of the rest” category behind the top three. Third and fourth is about where the drivers should finish in the standings, given the Ferrari’s pace.

Most to Prove: McLaren Honda. At the track where the engine made its debut last year in the post-race test, I’m praying there’s a trouble free weekend for them. That’s all I ask.

Additional Storyline to Watch: The ends of eras, and the loose ends to tie up. Several eras come to an end this weekend, and there’s several items to get tied up this weekend (Red Bull engines, and more). The paddock drama may trump on the on-track drama this weekend.

Predict the Podium

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari