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Breaking down Sunday’s pole qualifying for the Daytona 500

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In storybook fashion, Austin Dillon on Sunday afternoon drove the legendary No. 3 to the pole position for next Sunday’s 56th running of the Daytona 500.

It was the first time any driver has attempted to qualify the No. 3 since the late Dale Earnhardt did so in 2001, just days before he was tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the 500.

Without question, Dillon putting what many fans still to this day consider as Earnhardt’s car at the front of the field, and to take the green flag for next Sunday’s running of the Great American Race, will bring a big boost to NASCAR’s popularity — and will likely help deliver more ticket sales and higher TV ratings for the season opener.

Dillon was the only driver to exceed 196 mph, with a top qualifying run of 196.019 mph at 45.914 seconds.

Almost as surprising was Martin Truex Jr.’s impressive run to earn the outside pole for the 500. Truex was next fastest at 195.852 mph at 45.953 seconds.

That in itself is a great accomplishment, but it’s magnified by the fact that Truex is driving for a single-car operation, Furniture Row Racing. FRR made history last season when then-driver Kurt Busch made it the first single-car team to ever qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Front row is what we’re here for today,” Truex said. “Obviously, we can’t say enough about this team. What a great job. I think we’ve got about six miles on this car. One run yesterday, no testing down here, just an amazing job by everybody on the team.

“Obviously, I’m a pretty lucky guy to get to hold the wheel.”

Luck may have played a part in his run, but Truex had help. The same motors that powered Dillon to the pole and three other Richard Childress Racing drivers, also powered Truex’s car – putting five ECR-powered cars in the top 12 fastest rides.

After Dillon and Truex were three other RCR drivers, fifth-fastest Ryan Newman (195.707), 10th-fastest Paul Menard (194.919) and 12th-fastest Brian Scott (194.776).

Only Dillon and Truex have their qualifying spots locked in for the 500. The remainder of the 43-car field will solidify its qualifying spots on the starting grid in Thursday’s Budweiser Twin 150 Duels.

Let’s look at some of the other top storylines that emerged from Sunday’s activities:

* Ford power is back – well, at least in its qualifying efforts. Greg Biffle looked like he might sit on the outside pole until Truex knocked him off. But still, The Biff had a stout run of 195.818 mph. Right behind him at fourth-fastest was Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards (195.712). Brad Keselowski’s Team Penske entry was sixth-fastest (195.296), and ninth-fastest Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (195.004) made it four Fords in the top 10. All told, Ford-powered cars clocked in seven of the 15th-fastest runs of the day, while Chevrolets had the other eight-fast speeds.

* What happened to Toyota? After Denny Hamlin won Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, you’d have thought Toyota drivers would have strong runs in Sunday’s pole qualifying. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as the fastest Toyota driver was last season’s Sprint Cup championship runner-up, Matt Kenseth, who clocked in 17th-fastest at 194.574 mph. Clint Bowyer, who made the day’s final qualifying attempt, was 20th-fastest (194.523). Kyle Busch, who stirred controversy before his run by wondering if there was a conspiracy theory to put both Dillon’s and Dale Earnhardt’s cars on the front row (Earnhardt ultimately was seventh-fastest), was only 21st fastest (194.502). Hamlin, meanwhile, was 22nd-fastest (194.477).

* Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus struggled all day. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet failed to get through two pre-qualifying tech inspections. The first time, the car was too wide by 1/10,000ths of an inch, and its side skirts were just under 1/64th of an inch too long. Once those problems were corrected, the car was brought back for inspection, only to be sent back again when it wound up being 1 ½ pounds lighter than minimal requirements. Knaus and crew eventually got everything up to par, but Johnson – the defending Daytona 500 winner – couldn’t muster more than a 14th-fastest speed of 194.637 mph.

* What happened to Stewart-Haas Racing? You’ll have to go pretty far down on the speed charts to find an SHR driver. Kevin Harvick paced his four teammates at 23rd-fastest (194.422), Danica Patrick was 25th-fastest (194.380), Kurt Busch was 28th-fastest (194.078) and team leader Tony Stewart was 35th-fastest (193.365). Could the motor failures that Stewart and Patrick suffered during practice Saturday have left the team gun-shy in its qualifying runs?

* Dave Blaney was supposed to make a qualifying effort but never reached the grid.

* Ageless Morgan Shepherd (okay, he’s 72) was slowest on the qualifying grid with a 48th-fastest speed (189.542).

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Toto and Susie Wolff expecting first child

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 09:  Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff with wife Susie Wolff in the Paddock during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 9, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Recent Formula 1 test driver Susie Wolff and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff are expecting their first child, it has been announced.

Susie Wolff née Stoddart raced in DTM from 2006 until 2012 before working with Williams in F1, becoming the first woman to take part in a grand prix weekend session in 22 years during practice for the 2014 British Grand Prix.

Wolff announced following last year’s Race of Champions in London that she would be retiring from motorsport, turning her attention to ‘Dare 2 Be Different’, a scheme set up to get more women involved in racing.

Toto Wolff became involved in F1 as a shareholder in Williams in 2009 before joining Mercedes as executive director from 2013.

The pair married in 2011, and are now expecting their first child, as announced by Susie on Twitter on Friday.

When the Haas F1 Team discovered NASCAR evolution (VIDEO)

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Kyle Petty is on site at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with the Haas F1 Team to walk the museum and learn about at the evolution of NASCAR.

You can check out more from the NASCAR on NBC podcast, as Nate Ryan checks in with Haas’ pair of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez.

Here’s the full times and downloads for this weekend’s coverage of the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas.

United States GP Paddock Notebook – Thursday

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The weather looks good, the words have been flying from the drivers’ mouths, and the anticipation is building for track action to commence at Circuit of The Americas for this weekend’s United States Grand Prix starting on Friday (FP1 is at 11 a.m. ET, FP2 is at 3 p.m. ET, both on NBCSN).

With the FIA Press Conference today for drivers, most of the focus centered on how Lewis Hamilton would react in his first meeting with the media since a trying weekend in Japan.

But with Nico Hulkenberg having confirmed his departure from Sahara Force India for Renault in 2017, the emerging driver silly season that occurs as a result was also something discussed in the paddock.

Here’s a roundup of news, features and other items from the paddock at COTA today (and some from Wednesday rolled into this post):




Welcome to the Lewis Conference

Thursday marked the FIA Lewis Conference in Austin – I mean Press Conference – because it was a decidedly one-man show among the six drivers selected to participate in the often relatively mundane, run-of-mill event.

Of the 22 questions asked from the floor, no less than 12 were addressed to Lewis Hamilton – many addressing his questioning of the press conference format itself, his social media presence, why certain users are blocked and rather little related to this race and this season itself.

I found it interesting that the most lucid answers came from Hamilton to three F1 part-timers – myself included – who asked questions outside the norm.

Hamilton, who works with UNICEF, addressed a question about Haiti by saying it’s devastating what’s happened there as a result of Hurricane Matthew. “I don’t know what I could do (to help), apart from taking a picture for social media, which is not really that helpful,” he said.

He also answered my own question asking him to take us inside the Mercedes factories in Brixworth and Brackley with a spirited answer of how it felt. “Honestly, it’s kind of daunting when you go back to the two factories, because there’s so many people,” he admitted. “I remember joining this team and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the majority of people that were in here, said that it wasn’t the right decision. I had the belief that this team would really go somewhere and I’ve been a part of that journey and very proud of it.”

Then he addressed what’s been another persistent issue this year – his starts. “I was at the factory last week and we were working very hard to cover up all areas so we hope that we have a slightly better formula this weekend.”

It appeared likely that the Mercedes brass had told Hamilton to respectfully engage and seem happy to be there, which he did well. That it made it a bit boring for the other five in the room was perhaps inevitable after Suzuka a fortnight ago.

A question posed by NBCSN’s Will Buxton about the format did elicit a bit of laughter though, Haas F1’s Romain Grosjean noting he’d taken a pic earlier in the conference illegally as a Microsoft ambassador, but holding another brand of phone. None of the others offered much in the way of suggestions as to how to improve the format, and the lack of ideas said as much as the words themselves.

Laser focus for Rosberg

Nico Rosberg is all-game face, all the time. Despite persistent efforts from the full-time F1 press corps, Rosberg would not budge in his media availability on Thursday about whether he’s allowing himself to think about a potential first World Championship.

Maybe this will serve him well if he achieves it, and his performances on track of late – particularly since the summer break as he’s won four of five Grands Prix – would back up that win-only focus.

Silly season starting to percolate

With this the first Grand Prix since Nico Hulkenberg’s confirmation at Renault, as my colleague Luke Smith noted in the U.S. Grand Prix preview this morning, we now have a silly season upon us in F1 after all.

Spots at Renault, Force India and even Haas are the biggest talking points. This is before we get to the lesser-rated drives at the moment with Sauber and Manor. And this doesn’t even get into the likelihood that Daniil Kvyat’s time with Toro Rosso seems near an end, especially with Pierre Gasly here and present this weekend not long after his run with Red Bull on Pirelli’s new 2017 tires at a warm Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi over the weekend (more on that below).

Sebastian Vettel didn’t seem interested in discussing his future with Ferrari during the press conference, but rest assured when 2017 rolls around his 2018 contract will be an early-season talking point.

Looking at the young guns waiting to get in the F1 door

Jordan King will make his F1 race weekend debut on Friday, taking over Pascal Wehrlein’s chassis for Manor in free practice one. The Englishman has had what he termed a “solid” season in GP2, although he regretted leaving some points on the table. Still fifth in points, King could move up with a solid weekend at Abu Dhabi, and may well enter the Manor race seat frame in 2017 if Pascal Wehrlein and/or Esteban Ocon moves on.

Pierre Gasly is another who could well be in an F1 race seat sooner rather than later. The Frenchman completed an important run of three days testing Pirelli’s 2017 wider tires at Abu Dhabi over the weekend for Red Bull, running nearly 300 laps in the process. While the GP2 runner-up at the moment will look to win that title first, he said as soon as he knows his 2017 plans, he’ll be keen to announce them. It would be a surprise to few if a shot to race with Toro Rosso arrives next season.

Haas test driver Santino Ferrucci isn’t immediately on F1’s race seat doorstep, but the talented teen is another of those on site this weekend for Haas’ home race. Ferrucci has become the first American to test for Haas in the team’s maiden Grand Prix season, earlier this year in Silverstone.

The man with the “Shoey” has some kick-ass shoes

The best way to end today’s Paddock Notebook is with the latest in “Shoey’s Shoes.”

Here’s the latest from Daniel Ricciardo as he has arrived in Austin, one of his favorite cities, with some kick-ass shoes that scream, ‘Merica.

See a post here from Red Bull Racing on Twitter:

NBCSN’s new show, Motorclub, premieres tonight at 11 p.m. ET

Photo: Chris Tedesco/Red Bull Content Pool
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A new five-episode series chronicling major athletes in rising extreme and motorsport competitions, called Motorclub, premieres tonight at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The first episode looks at Red Bull Global Rallycross’ season finale in Los Angeles, as Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammates Scott Speed and Tanner Foust battled for the title.

Foust, who’s been part of TV productions before as a host for Top Gear America (ran from 2010 until early this year), will serve as an executive producer of this show.

Other drivers/athletes expected to feature in the show include Travis Pastrana, Bucky Lasek, Brian Deegan and Ken Gushi, perhaps among others.

A trailer from the show is below, and a link to the show’s Facebook page with more information is linked here: