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


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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Grosjean takes grid penalty, Merhi to start from pit lane in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean will start Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from the back of the grid after receiving a penalty for changing the gearbox on his Lotus car.

Grosjean failed to set a time in the second stage of Saturday’s qualifying session after a gearbox issue forced him to park up at the side of the track.

The Frenchman was classified 15th, but will now drop to P20 for the start of the race after taking a new gearbox to resolve the issue.

As a result, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Marcus Ericsson and Will Stevens all move up one place, filling out positions 15-18 on the grid.

Grosjean will start 19th after the stewards found that Manor had changed the suspension setup on Roberto Merhi’s car after qualifying, breaking parc ferme rules. The Spaniard is now required to start from the pit lane.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

WATCH LIVE: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on NBCSN, Live Extra from 7am ET

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg of Germany steers his car during the first free practice at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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It all ends here – the 2015 Formula 1 season comes to a close under the floodlights of the Yas Marina Circuit today with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

2015 will by no means go down as a classic season – those experiencing the kind of dominance Lewis Hamilton enjoyed rarely do – but it has nevertheless been an entertaining, interesting and intriguing one that has laid plenty of foundations for the future.

Nico Rosberg is one man who is looking firmly ahead to 2016 already, having rediscovered the kind of form that made him a title contender at this point last year. With six poles in a row and two wins on the bounce, the German will be gunning to make it a hat-trick on Sunday.

However, with Hamilton starting alongside him on the front row and an engine that is a little more overworked than most, Rosberg knows he faces a stiff challenge to end the year on a high and gain more momentum ahead of the new campaign.

This fascinating dynamic sets us up for a thrilling duel between Rosberg and Hamilton once again in Abu Dhabi, one year on from their scrap for the championship.

You can watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Few eras are ending on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, but it will nevertheless mark an important point for most on the grid. Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Felipe Nasr will all finish their rookie years; Manor will have done what many doubted it could do by finishing a full season; quite whether drivers Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi will return with the team next year remains to be seen.

Alas, the end of the season is always a time for pressure to be released. After a busy year of jetting all over the world, the paddock will be afforded two months of respite before pre-season testing kicks into gear – a much-needed relief for many.

For those at home, make sure you enjoy the final race of the season and get your F1 fix in before the long winter kicks in.

You can watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Marko: Red Bull has been “fooled around”

xxxx during practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Red Bull Racing advisor Helmut Marko claims that the team is still yet to formally agree an engine deal for the 2016 Formula 1 season after being “fooled around” by possible partners earlier in the year.

Red Bull expressed a desire to cut ties with current power unit supplier Renault earlier in the year, but looks set to agree a new deal that will see its relationship with the French manufacturer continue into 2016.

Earlier this week, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner claimed that an engine supply had been agreed for next year, but Marko’s most recent comments in an interview with the official F1 website suggest otherwise.

“I tell you: nothing is fixed at this very moment,” Marko said. “A car is nothing without an engine – that is the sad truth, otherwise we would be on the sunny side already!

“But a decision should be made this weekend – either Saturday night or Sunday. That makes still one more day to bargain.

“In this ‘game’, as you call it, we are passengers. We can’t influence what is going on at the moment. With our financial involvement in the sport that is a very dissatisfying situation.”

Marko said that Red Bull’s billionaire owner, Dietrich Mateschitz, had to be very patient because of promises broken by other engine suppliers, hinting at the breakdown in talks with Mercedes.

“He is so patient because we have been fooled around,” Marko said.

“We had deals and promises for engines which in the end didn’t come true.”

Red Bull is known to have thought it had agreed a deal with Mercedes, only for the German marque to reject it on competition grounds.

Ferrari offered Red Bull 2015-spec power units for 2016, and although this was turned down, Toro Rosso is understood to be in line to take these on.

Honda also discussed an engine deal with Red Bull, only for McLaren CEO Ron Dennis to veto any possible supply.

“It was fully supported by Honda that we didn’t have the capacity to engage another team, but someone had to stand up and say ‘this is not going to happen’,” Dennis is quoted as saying by Autosport in Abu Dhabi.

“This wasn’t me countering a desire of Honda, this was me taking responsibility for a decision, which goes with the job.”

Raikkonen: No secret to qualifying charge in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kimi Raikkonen says that there was no secret behind his late charge to third place in qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but remains realistic about his chances in Sunday’s race.

After seeing teammate Sebastian Vettel drop out in Q1, Raikkonen led Ferrari’s charge at the Yas Marina Circuit by finishing third behind the Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

Raikkonen managed to edge out Force India driver Sergio Perez for P3 with his final lap in Q3, but the Finn said that there was no secret to his late charge.

“No real secret,” Raikkonen said. “Obviously the car has been handling pretty well all weekend.

“The laps haven’t been ideal many times. Even the first run, it was OK the lap, but I knew there was quite a lot of room to improve so I just tried to make one a bit better lap and it was enough.

“Obviously still a bit of a way off from what these guys can do but we did our best today.

“The Mercedes have been very quick today and yesterday, in the lap times they are a bit faster than us, but the race is tomorrow, so let’s see.

“I did my maximum today. Tomorrow is another day, we can only do our best and see where we’ll end up. We’ll try to make a good start and then see how it pans out, going from there and making the right decisions.”

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.