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).

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F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on NBCSN, NBC Sports App this week

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After five years and 98 Grands Prix broadcast since 2013, NBC Sports Group’s coverage of Formula 1 concludes with the 2017 season finale from Abu Dhabi at the Yas Marina Circuit this week.

The lights come on for the day-into-night Grand Prix of the year as the sun sets on five years of broadcasts, original content and additional digital specific features such as Paddock Pass.

For Abu Dhabi this week, all of the race, qualifying and second free practice will be live on NBCSN with first and third free practice live on the NBC Sports App. The race returns is back in the usual morning a.m. time slots after three mid-day races in Austin, Mexico City and Sao Paulo, and a pair of overnight affairs in Kuala Lumpur and Suzuka. Formula 2 coverage of its season finale from Abu Dhabi also airs both on NBCSN and online.

With this the final race of the season before F1’s winter break, there’s still a handful of things to get sorted even though Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have wrapped their respective championships.

Sebastian Vettel (Brazil) and Max Verstappen (Mexico) have won the last two races, with Hamilton’s most recent win coming at Circuit of the Americas. Will it be any of these three that wrap the year on a high or could any of their teammates – Kimi Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo or Valtteri Bottas – upend the script?

Mercedes has won the last three races in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton winning in 2014 and 2016 with Nico Rosberg taking the 2015 crown.

Vettel and Hamilton have three wins apiece in Abu Dhabi, Vettel having taken all of his with Red Bull in 2009, 2010 and 2013, and Hamilton adding a 2011 McLaren triumph to his last two with Mercedes. Raikkonen (2012, Lotus) and Rosberg are the other Abu Dhabi winners, and while both Vettel and Raikkonen have won in Abu Dhabi, Ferrari never has in the first eight races here.

The last place up for grabs in the constructor’s battle is for sixth, with Toro Rosso (53 points), Renault (49) and Haas (47) separated by only six total points. Toro Rosso and Renault got into a nasty war of words in Brazil, and will part ways after the weekend.

Felipe Massa signs off his career in F1 for the second and expected final time at Williams, and with Toro Rosso having confirmed Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley last week, his seat is one of only three left to fill for 2018, and the most attractive.

McLaren and Honda also bring to an end their partnership after three troubled seasons, but on the bright side will look to score points for a third straight race together, which hasn’t happened since the Hungarian, German and Belgian Grands Prix of 2016.

As ever, and perhaps for the final time as a collective unit, Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call with Will Buxton reporting from the pits and paddock.

Here’s the F1 schedule, with stream links and TV network if applicable:

  • Practice 1: Friday, Nov. 24, 4 a.m.-5:30 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Practice 2: Friday, Nov. 24, 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Practice 3: Saturday, Nov. 25, 5 a.m.-6 a.m. ET (Streaming)
  • Qualifying: Saturday, Nov. 25, 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Pre-Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 7 a.m.-8 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 8 a.m.-10 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Post-Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 10 a.m.-10:55 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • Race (Replay): Sunday, Nov. 26, 7 p.m.-9 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • F2 Race: Sunday, Nov. 26, 6 a.m.-7 a.m. ET (NBCSN)
  • F2 Race (Replay): Sunday, Nov. 26, 9 p.m.-10 p.m. ET (NBCSN)