Richard Childress

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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Here’s 30 great James Hinchcliffe videos to celebrate him turning 30

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motosports Honda IndyCar is introduced before the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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James Hinchcliffe turns 30 today, which seems hard to believe for the perpetually candid, humorous, self-deprecating and fast “Mayor of Hinchtown.”

Hinchcliffe’s junior open-wheel career from karting to the Formula BMW and Star Mazda days, before three years in Atlantic (when I met him in 2007) and onto Indy Lights, eventually led to his finally making it to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2011, a year when he won rookie-of-the-year.

He took over in what had been Danica Patrick’s GoDaddy car in 2012, won his first three races in 2013, then moved on from Andretti Autosport to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at the end of 2014.

Of course, you know the story of his accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500, his recovery, his comeback in late 2015 and then into 2016, then his star turn this year with pole for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and his phenomenal run on “Dancing with the Stars” this fall.

Hinchcliffe is a driver, showman, comedian, philanthropist, business owner, podcast host, burgeoning dancer, and actually pretty damn smart.

But one of his hallmarks throughout his career has been his videos. Here’s 30 of them, throughout the years, to chronicle how funny and insightful he’s been for such a long time.

PRE-INDYCAR (10: 2010 AND EARLIER)

A disclaimer first: there are more of these, which made condensing the list down to 10 a challenge.

Hinchcliffe’s Kimi Raikkonen imitation is legendary. See the roots of it from 2007, when Hinchcliffe was a sophomore in the Atlantic Championship, and Raikkonen was in his first season at Ferrari. Of course, little did we know then that Raikkonen would win that year’s World Championship, and Ferrari’s most recent.

Remember the old A1GP series? Where it was pitched as a country-versus-country winter series of open-wheel racing? Of course you don’t. And so this is why we show you Hinchcliffe, who raced for A1 Team Canada, going upside-down at a race at Eastern Creek Raceway in Sydney, Australia. He jokes he was “right-side up.” A then-unheralded German driver named Nico Hulkenberg won both races.

We all hate going to the dentist. By hate, I mean love, right? The simplicity of Hinchcliffe describing a trip to the dentist, in his office/studio/room is something we can all appreciate.

“I love fishes ’cause they’re so delicious.” Say no more.

Cooper Tires sponsored Atlantic’s pole award at this time for $1,000. Hinchcliffe then explains the travails and exploits of attempting to cash or deposit said “novelty size check.”

IndyCar merged in 2008, as Champ Car and the Indy Racing League came together. Here was Hinchcliffe’s take on it at the time.

In 2008, IndyCar merged, and Road America was not part of the merged schedule – until it returned this year in 2016. But the Atlantic Championship did race at the picturesque road course. And Hinchcliffe, then in his third season in Atlantic, went around the paddock to introduce them to the famous Road America Johnsonville brats (hat tip to my friend and colleague, IMSA PR ace Nate Siebens, who was the videographer on this one). During 2008, Hinchcliffe did a number of experiential videos in Atlantic paddocks; honorable mention goes to this luge one from Mont-Tremblant.

Hinchcliffe’s second season in Indy Lights, 2010, featured a number of funny videos. One of the more underrated ones was when Hinchcliffe, Logan Gomez and Gustavo Yacaman among others set out to paint doors for Habitat for Humanity. Hilarity ensued.

Here’s another one. Hinchcliffe and “Beaver” – who may or may not be Martin Plowman (it is) – tag up international flags in the paddock (honorable mention to the pair of them sitting through a rain delay at Kansas).

Additionally, in 2010, this one featured Hinchcliffe, Conor Daly, Sebastian Saavedra and a couple others in a famous – or infamous – road trip to Iowa.

HOW HINCH GOT GODADDY (1: 2012)

Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar career nearly stalled out after one year through no fault of his own, because the Newman/Haas Racing team he drove for ran out of sponsorship. Andretti Autosport had signed Dan Wheldon to replace Danica Patrick in 2012; however, tragically, Wheldon was killed in the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas. Hinchcliffe got the nod in the No. 27 GoDaddy Chevrolet, and naturally, the story of how he got the nod was done in classic Hinchcliffe form.

A further campaign followed of “Hinch for Homepage” to see him supplant Patrick on GoDaddy.com’s website. Hinchcliffe played tribute to Patrick when in his debut in St. Petersburg in the new car, he wore a Patrick-esque wig for driver introductions.

MORE EARLY INDYCAR (3: 2012) 

One of my all-time favorite IndyCar videos. Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand were all part of IndyCar’s 2011 rookie class – arguably its strongest class in years. And, because they have similar sounding names and two of the three are from California, they attempt to explain who they are in this 2012 video.

In 2012, Hinchcliffe was a sophomore, and Josef Newgarden was a rookie. The immortal “we don’t speak of the gnomes” line from Newgarden, when Hinchcliffe toured Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s shop, was born here.

Hinchcliffe scored his first IndyCar podium at Long Beach 2012, benefiting from a late-race penalty assessed to Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, which came with a sidebar. After losing a bet to Wade Cunningham because he made the podium, Hinchcliffe’s trademark beard was shaved off.

INDYCAR WIN RECAPS (4: 2013-2015) 

Hinchcliffe broke through as an IndyCar race winner in 2013, following a spirited defense against Helio Castroneves at the St. Petersburg season opener. Adding to the emotion of the moment was the fact Hinchcliffe won in the Wheldon’s adopted hometown, in what would have been Wheldon’s No. 27 GoDaddy car.

Also in 2013, Hinchcliffe delivered his most famous IndyCar win to date. His second win came at the Sao Paulo Indy 300, following a last-lap, last-turn pass of Takuma Sato to secure the victory.

Hinchcliffe’s most dominant win in his career to date came at Iowa in 2013, when he led 226 of 250 laps in a beatdown.

Rain and cautions peppered IndyCar’s lone trip to NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015. In an otherwise forgettable weekend, the strategy call from Robert Gue stood out to position Hinchcliffe for his fourth career win, first with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and most recent of his career.

THE RECOVERY FROM INDY CRASH  (1: 2016)

A number of good videos were produced in the aftermath of Hinchcliffe’s accident in practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500. Our NBCSN one from earlier this year is below; several other good ones are linked in this sentence (Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital; Arrow Electronics; INDYCAR with Spyder), among others.

THE INDY POLE RUN (1: 2016)

Hinchcliffe’s pole run for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 is featured in the highights from INDYCAR, linked above.

OFFSEASON VIDEOS, ALMOST ALWAYS STARRING HINCH (3: 2012-2016)

One of IndyCar’s hallmarks is utilizing Hinchcliffe in its offseason arsenal of videos. See a few of them, below:

Fall 2014: Hinchcliffe signs with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and a beer ride down to the Indiana Pacers’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse happens (a certain MST writer makes a cameo here).

Early 2015: IndyCar vs. Mardi Gras

Fall 2016: IndyCar Test Drive (featuring multiple drivers)

DANCING MAN (6: 2016)

Here’s six of the best dances/moments between Hinchcliffe and professional partner Sharna Burgess on the 23rd season of “Dancing with the Stars,” where Hinchcliffe finished second to Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

Rumba: After this performance, judge Julianne Hough called Hinchcliffe the “best male dancer” in the show’s history.

Halloween Viennese Waltz (with interim professional partner Jenna Johnson). This one went viral.

Paso Doble Team Up where Hinchcliffe and Calvin Johnson were in the same group.

Tango: When Sharna came back after a knee injury, and was promptly blindfolded.

Trio Jive, where James, Sharna and Jenna danced together and where the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda made an appearance.

Finals: Freestyle, that is the dancing/artistic representation of closing that “blank space” to his accident in Indy.

THE MONTAGE THAT SAYS IT ALL (1: 2011-2016)

If the above clips didn’t capture everything we were trying to set out for here, we hope this one created by this YouTube user does. The respective INDYCAR 36 (2012) and IndyCar Chronicles (2015) episodes of Hinchcliffe, done by IMS Productions, are linked here.

As you can see, Hinchcliffe has been in a lot of videos over the last decade, and this post only scratches the surface of all he’s been in.

But it’s been a great 30 years – with the last 11 in particular since his debut in Atlantic in 2006 where he’s firmly been part of the open-wheel racing establishment, and the last six in IndyCar from 2011 to 2016 where he’s taken that next level.

Happy birthday, Hinch. May there be many more years to come with many more videos added along the way.

Wehrlein “feels ready” for job of replacing Rosberg, if he gets seat

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 20:  (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Pascal Wehrlein of Germany and Mercedes GP poses for a portrait during day three of Formula One Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 21, 2015 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Pascal Wehrlein is the potential lynchpin in the race to replace Nico Rosberg, now fully underway after the shock news of the 2016 World Champion’s decision to retire has come down and now set in.

The Mercedes AMG Petronas reserve driver and Manor race driver from this season did a thoroughly good – if not outstanding – job in his first full season in Formula 1 and could well be the pick to replace Rosberg alongside Lewis Hamilton next season.

Wehrlein is confident in his ability and expressed his candidacy for the job while accepting rookie-of-the-year honors at last night’s Autosport Awards.

“One season in Formula 1 of course is not a lot, but I feel ready for the job,” Wehrlein said. “I feel confident enough.

“Now the decision is on the bosses. I guess Toto’s (Wolff) phone is overheating since Friday! I respect that process and that they want to go to the best option.”

Pushed a bit further, Wehrlein also offered a sneaky sense of humor in noting how much testing he’s already done on a modified chassis with Pirelli’s new-for-2017 tires.

“I’ve done the most days with 2017 tires. It’s very important to have that experience,” he laughed.

Wehrlein could well get the nod by way of his availability. However if Mercedes opts to buy out another tied-down driver’s contract, it could well end up that Wehrlein might be placed elsewhere on the grid.

Despite losing out on the Force India seat to fellow Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon, Wehrlein’s stock has never been higher.

Ryan Norman confirmed for Andretti Indy Lights program

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As NBC Sports reported over the weekend, Ryan Norman has been confirmed as third driver for Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program in 2017.

Norman joins the previously announced Dalton Kellett (No. 28 K-LINE Insulators, USA Mazda) and Nico Jamin (No. 27 Synova Mazda). Norman, out of Cleveland, won this year’s Atlantic Championship and will drive the No. 48 Flip Side Mazda. He’s tested for the team this winter.

“I’m very excited to join Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Indy Lights Season,” said Norman. “With their great success in IndyCar and Indy Lights, it is the perfect environment for me to learn and grow as a driver. I want to thank Michael Andretti and the rest of the team for this wonderful opportunity and I hope to bring great results to the team this coming year.”

“We have been following Ryan’s achievements in Formula Atlantic and feel he will do equally well, if not better, in Indy Lights,” J-F Thormann, President of Andretti Autosport, added. “Ryan has tested for the team several times this offseason and has impressed us with how quickly he has adapted to the car. We are looking forward to seeing what the 2017 season has in store for us and are thrilled to have three of our four Indy Lights entries announced.”

As noted by Thormann above, the team has confirmed four Indy Lights entries for 2017. From what we’ve heard, the fourth driver could well be an intriguing young American.

Rainguard Water Sealers signs on as Texas IndyCar title sponsor

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: Alexander Rossi driver of the #98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda leads Helio Castroneves driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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Cue the jokes about how Texas Motor Speedway’s new Verizon IndyCar Series race title sponsor, Rainguard Water Sealers, was a year late, as track drying delays from rain helped postpone this year’s race from June to August.

But the new title sponsor is on board for the next three years, through whatever weather exists at TMS. Which is a good thing, because it confirms both the race and the sponsor through 2019.

“We extremely pleased to have Texas Motor Speedway and ‘America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race’ serve as the initial sponsorship venture into motorsports and sports in general for Rainguard Water Sealers,” Eddie Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway president, said in a release. “We look forward to providing Rainguard with an exceptional first experience as an entitlement sponsor and help the company attain their goals through this sponsorship agreement.”

Firestone has been the race’s title sponsor of what is now the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 since 2010. Prior to that, Bombardier Learjet sponsored the race from 2005 to 2009, when Texas dropped from having two races on the annual IndyCar calendar down to one.

Rainguard was founded in 1969 as a manufacturer of architectural grade coatings used in the construction industry, and developed speciality sealer products starting in 2010.