Austin Dillon intends to honor Dale Earnhardt’s legacy and keep his memory alive in No. 3 car

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Austin Dillon has been preparing for Feb. 23 for pretty much his entire racing life.

Not only will he kick off the start of his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series that day in the 56th Daytona 500, Dillon more importantly will bring back the legendary No. 3 onto the Cup racing scene.

It was 13 years ago that Dale Earnhardt last raced the No. 3, tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. No other driver has competed in the Cup series in the No. 3 since then.

Dillon is the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt won six of his seven Cup championships driving the No. 3.

To his credit, Dillon has gone out of his way to tell media, fans and pretty much anyone else that will listen that he’s not trying to step into Earnhardt’s shoes, nor is he trying to discredit Earnhardt’s famous racing number.

“Dale was so important in driving that number,” Dillon said at Thursday’s NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “He was the guy that made that number what it is today. But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport.  The number for me, hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on with it.”

Dillon has driven the No. 3 in various forms of racing that he’s competed in, including winning the Camping World Truck Series in 2011 and the Nationwide Series championship last season – both coming in rides that sported the infamous number on the doors and hood.

In a sense, even though the No. 3 was Earnhardt’s number in Sprint Cup, it’s also been Dillon’s number throughout his career for nearly 20 years, ever since he got behind the wheel of a go-kart 20 years ago.

Admittedly, Dillon did initially give thought to perhaps not driving the No. 3 once he reached the pinnacle of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup division.

“There’s always thoughts of it,” he said. “I feel like you go through times, and you don’t know what to go through.  My family, RCR (Richard Childress Racing), all the people there around us, hearing it from Dale Jr. (who gave Dillon his blessing to drive the No. 3) and people like that, is very influential I feel like to where we’re at today.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve looked at other numbers and stuff, too.  It wasn’t like, ‘That’s the number I want to run. Bam, bam, that’s how I was going to do it or nothing.’ We were very respectful in the fact it was up to my grandfather and the people that were around that number the longest.

“So I’m not a kid that says, ‘Hey, this is what I want, this is what I’m going to get.’ I’ve never been that way. Hopefully, I’m never portrayed that way. I’m a very respectful person and look to the history of the sport. I feel fortunate I’m getting this opportunity, though.”

Among other numbers Dillon considered at one point or other were the 21, 2 and 41 – all of which are taken by Trevor Bayne, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick this season – and even the 33, as an alternative to the No. 3, much like Dale Earnhardt Jr. transitioned from the No. 8 while driving at Dale Earnhardt Inc., to the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports.

Even though Earnhardt left us 13 years ago, his image remains ever-present in the sport, particularly around Daytona with fans still having stickers or wearing clothing to honor their fallen hero. Even in death, Earnhardt merchandise remains a hot seller at souvenir stands and stores.

“The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever,” Dillon said.  “Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number.  He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody’s mind, including myself.  Dale is going to fly here forever.  That’s the coolest thing about everything that’s going on.”

Earnhardt’s mother, Martha, said in a nationally televised interview Wednesday that she had ‘mixed feelings’ about seeing the No. 3 back on the track.

Dillon understands those feelings and is doing everything he can to honor Dale Earnhardt’s memory and legacy.

“The biggest thing is being respectful to all the family that is involved and also just taking this opportunity and hoping that fans are embracing it the right way,” Dillon said. “We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3.  I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.

“I think we respect everything that the Earnhardt family has to say.  Dale Jr. and everybody has been very supportive of it.  It’s been a good thing so far.  Everything’s been great.  Just continue to move on with what we’re going with.

“I think there was something about the number and the color.  That is one thing my grandfather said from the beginning, that we weren’t going to have it black.  So luckily the Cheerios car and Dow, everybody, our sponsors, have some black in the color with their sponsor, exactly not a percentage that’s more than 50 percent.  I think the most we’ve got on a paint scheme is 60 percent.  That is one thing.  But we’re definitely respectful and going to keep it color sensitive.”

Fans are expected to honor the return of the three on race day, most likely extending three fingers on the third lap in Earnhardt’s memory. And while Dillon knows there will be some who will forever consider it sacrilege that the No. 3 is back racing, he hopes those critics will at least give him a chance to honor the number and Earnhardt with his performance.

“Everybody’s got their own opinion,” Dillon said. “I feel like hopefully we can win them over as time goes on. That’s all you can do.

“Hopefully they’re open enough to take a look at everything that we’re doing. I think as far as performance and moving forward, hopefully we can win them over.”

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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.”