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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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Ricky Taylor to run next three FIA WEC races in Larbre Corvette

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 03:  Ricky Taylor, C, sits with member of his crew before qualifying for Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 3, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
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Ricky Taylor and Larbre Competition have worked together before, with Taylor having driven for the Jack Leconte-led team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice in both an older spec Corvette C6.R (2013) and an LMP2 class Morgan Judd (2014).

He’ll be back for a bigger bow with the team for the next three upcoming races of the FIA World Endurance Championship, in the team’s No. 50 Corvette C7.R at Mexico City next weekend (Sept. 3), Circuit of The Americas (Sept. 17) and Fuji Speedway in Japan (Oct. 16).

Taylor fills in for Paolo Ruberti alongside the team’s other two drivers, Pierre Ragues and Yutaka Yamagishi. Additionally, Corvette will provide support with a new engineer, Charlie Ping, joining the French squad.

The story was initially reported by Sportscar365 back in July, but was formally confirmed by the team late last week.

“I am very excited to join Larbre for these three rounds of the WEC championship,” Taylor said in a relase. “The team has proven its great pace this season by clinching good results. I am looking forward to supporting the squad to more success and to do my part to contribute to some points for the championship for Pierre, Yutaka and the team.

” I have enjoyed my other experiences with the outfit so it will be a nice experience to be back. Thanks to Jack and Larbre again for thinking of me and giving me the opportunity to fly their colors again.”

This will mean Taylor will be one of likely several drivers pulling double duty at Circuit of The Americas between the FIA WEC and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races; that’s the penultimate round of that series’ season. He co-drives with brother Jordan Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Corvette DP for Wayne Taylor Racing.

RC Enerson back in Coyne’s No. 19 car for Watkins Glen, Sonoma

Enerson. Photo: IndyCar
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This will come as little to no surprise given his impressive debut at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, but RC Enerson will continue in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda at the final two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. The team confirmed this at Pocono to NBC Sports and others.

Enerson will take over the Boy Scouts of America entry at the two permanent road courses at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway. Enerson hasn’t raced at Watkins Glen but did test there in August.

Meanwhile he won a Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda race at Sonoma in 2014 and nearly snatched that series championship at the final weekend, before being edged by Frenchman Florian Latorre. He should test at Sonoma before racing there.

The 19-year-old Floridian could have made it out of Q1 in his IndyCar debut at Mid-Ohio and ran in the top-10 in the early stages at the Honda Indy 200 before a bad pit stop saw his race go awry. Nonetheless, he had the third fastest race lap and arguably the best 19th place finish in recent memory.

Enerson will have had three starts in the No. 19 car this year, as one of four drivers in the seat. Gabby Chaves has had seven, following the conclusion of Texas on Saturday, with Luca Filippi five and Pippa Mann one (Pocono).

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

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28:  Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the field at the start during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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An at-times chaotic Belgian Grand Prix has kicked off the run to the finish of the 2016 Formula One season, with Nico Rosberg winning and Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso both turning in great drives from the rear of the field to the points.

Meanwhile Daniel Ricciardo got his countryman Mark Webber to do a “shoey,” Max Verstappen squared off with the Ferrari boys again, and Kevin Magnussen survived a heavy accident exiting Eau Rouge largely unscathed.

It’s all those elements and then some that make up the post-race edition of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series, from Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales check in below. You can see all three parts below.

Wild and fearless Verstappen is just what Formula One needs

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium (AP) He’s very fast, very young and very confident. He races on the limit, upsets other drivers and cares little when he does. He’s also great for Formula One.

Max Verstappen may not be winning many friends among other drivers – especially those from Ferrari – but his aggressive, unapologetic, fearless driving is wonderfully entertaining for fans.

The 18-year-old Dutchman is the youngest to win a race and to start from the front row of the grid, and he’s also just what F1 needs in an era of fading former champions.

Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button are all in their mid-30s. Although three-time champion Lewis Hamilton is clearly very much on top of his game, and his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg is highly competitive, both drivers are 31.

Verstappen’s star factor drew more than 20,000 Dutch fans to the Belgian Grand Prix last weekend. Legions of orange-clad fans queued at the entry gates. Dutch flags were dotted around the Spa grandstands.

“He is refreshing for me. He is a young boy that I like a lot,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “He comes in here, no fear, no respect. He puts the elbow out and it reminds me of the great ones. It reminds me of Lewis and it reminds me of Ayrton Senna.”

High praise indeed, from Wolff, who might have added that Verstappen also has some of the brashness that typified seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher. Wolff has expressed regret that Mercedes was not able to snap Verstappen up before Toro Rosso did last year.

“You can clearly see that some guys around are starting to think twice how to overtake him,” Wolff said, before adding a note of caution about Verstappen’s high-risk driving. “I just fear that it might end up in the wall heavily one day. For me it is refreshing, but it is dangerous.”

In May, Verstappen drove brilliantly to win the Spanish GP on his Red Bull debut – joining from feeder team Toro Rosso after just four races of this season – and he followed that up with three more podium finishes.

At the Belgian GP, his second place in qualifying set another record as the youngest driver ever to start on a front row of the grid.

His talent is unquestionable, but his attitude is, and the feeling in F1 circles is that Verstappen’s tender age means he gets away with things that other drivers do not.

“The FIA has not penalized him. The only thing that happened was that he was given a hard time in the drivers’ briefing,” Wolff said. “Maybe next time he will have an even harder time in the driver briefing.”

Especially from Raikkonen and his Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel.

Raikkonen criticized him after last month’s Hungarian GP and again after the Belgian GP.

There was a high-profile tangle between Verstappen and both Ferraris on the first turn on Sunday. Later in the race, Verstappen infuriated Raikkonen with some aggressive blocking moves when the 36-year-old Finn tried to get past him at high speed.

“Maybe it needs an accident before things get more clear to everybody,” Raikkonen said. “Hopefully not because it can be bad for somebody, and nobody wants to see something like that happen.”

Verstappen, however, appears to care little for reputation, does not get pushed around, and his vitriolic words match the intensity of his driving.

Blaming Ferrari, he was quoted as telling Dutch TV after Sunday’s race “I’m not going to let them past, I’d rather force them off the track,” reportedly adding “in the end I’m the victim.”