Austin Dillon in the No. 3: A successor to, not a replacement for Dale Earnhardt

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The late Dale Earnhardt wrote the book on driving the No. 3.

Austin Dillon begins writing the sequel in Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500.

For 13 years, NASCAR fans vigorously debated the merits of the No. 3. Loyal Earnhardt fans felt his memory and legacy would best be remembered by never racing that number again, an everlasting memorial to what Earnhardt meant to them and the sport.

Others felt that if the No. 43 of NASCAR’s winningest driver, Richard Petty, wasn’t retired, than the No. 3 shouldn’t be either. To them, it was just a number.

As Dillon began his racing career in his teens, the No. 3 was the number he chose to adorn the side of every vehicle he would race across several different racing series, from go-karts to legend cars to the K&N Pro Series East, and ultimately to winning championships in the Camping World Trucks Series and the Nationwide Series.

Not only was it an homage to Earnhardt, it was also an homage to his grandfather, Richard Childress. Dillon saw the sadness and grief the man he called “Pop Pop” went through for days, weeks and years after Earnhardt died in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Grief is supposed to lessen in time, but Childress was so close to Earnhardt that even 10 years later, during the 2011 NASCAR Media Tour, RC still broke up emotionally when asked about The Intimidator.

Earnhardt was more than just a driver or employee to Childress. He was more than a guy who won six of his seven Sprint Cup championships while racing under the RCR banner.

Rather, Earnhardt was kin to Childress, even if there wasn’t a direct blood connection. The two men raced, hunted, fished, hung out … hell, call them what they were: best friends through and through.

When Earnhardt died, a bit of Childress died. Scratch that – a lot of Childress died. It was as if he lost the combination of a brother and son. There was even a point early on after Earnhardt died that Childress questioned whether he should continue in racing.

Austin, Richard’s first grandchild, had a front-row seat to what his Pop Pop went through. Perhaps he was just being an impressionable kid, but Dillon wanted to do whatever he could to help Childress get over his grief, to rekindle his love and excitement of the sport, to bring back that famous Childress smile.

Dillon chose the one thing that he hoped could reignite and reinvigorate Childress’ spirit – not to mention continue the next generation of what has become a family business.

Namely, racing.

Dillon was a gifted prep athlete in a variety of other sports who probably could have played any sport he wanted in college. Maybe even make it to the pros.

But he chose to become a racer.

And now, seven years after he first climbed into a K&N car, Dillon is at the pinnacle of what he’s dreamed about for most of his 23 years:

To race in NASCAR’s premier series for his grandfather.

You couldn’t write a better script: Dillon isn’t just bringing back the No. 3 for the first time in 13 years, he’ll lead the pack to the green flag for Sunday’s Great American Race as its pole sitter.

The Earnhardt legacy will essentially come full-circle when the race starts. It’s likely that most of the sell-out crowd at Daytona International Speedway will not only applaud Dillon when he crosses the start-finish line to start the race, they’ll also likely stand and hold up three fingers at the third lap unfolds as a tribute to Earnhardt – hopefully with Dillon still in the lead.

It’ll be the final passing of the torch, the changing of the guard.

Whether you’re a fan of the No. 3 coming back or not, Dillon has gone to great pain and effort to honor Earnhardt’s memory in the best way possible, while at the same time very subtly making folks aware there’s a new driver in the legendary numbered car.

There’s been no pomposity on Dillon’s part that the No. 3 is now “his” number.

“I’m not a kid that says, ‘Hey, this is what I want, this is what I’m going to get,'” Dillon said. “I’ve never been that way. Hopefully I’m never portrayed that way.”

There’s been no attempt by Dillon to say he’s going to fill Earnhardt’s shoes.

And there’s been absolutely no reference whatsoever that Dillon will ever be as good as Earnhardt.

Dillon has quickly become known in the NASCAR world as a young man who is very respectful to everyone he comes into contact with. He welcomes contact with fans, constantly says “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am,” and is about as sincere as they come.

He obviously was raised right by his mother and father, and of course, his Pop Pop.

“I’m a very respectful person and look to the history of the sport,” Dillon said with significant humility. “I feel fortunate I’m getting this opportunity.”

Dillon and his grandfather both know they’re going out on a big limb by not only bringing the No. 3 back, but also having Austin drive what so many consider “Dale’s car.” It would likely have been much simpler to come into the Sprint Cup series with another number.

Dillon knows that there will likely be more eyes upon him – especially in Sunday’s race – than on any other driver since Earhardt died.

He also knows that he wants to win lots of races and championships over the next 20-plus years. He never has been or ever will be Earnhardt, but you can’t fault Dillon if he wants to aspire to be the kind of driver The Intimidator was.

So for those of you who feel it’s sacrilegious that Dillon is going to be racing “Dale’s number,” consider this: other than one of Earnhardt’s own children or grandchildren, would you rather see Dillon in the No. 3, someone who was essentially part of Earnhardt’s extended family, or would you rather see someone who has no clue what that number and Earnhardt’s legacy means?

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

“The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever. Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number. He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody’s mind, including myself.

“… We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3.  I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.”

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Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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