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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Here are driver running orders for 2017 Barcelona tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26:  Carlos Sainz of Spain with Daniil Kvyat of Russia both of Scuderia Toro Rosso unveil the new STR-12 F1 car during previews to F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 26, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)
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Tomorrow, the 2017 Formula 1 season will be underway at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona with the first of two four-day tests at the track.

The tests run from February 27-March 2, and March 7-10. The season opens in Melbourne with the Australian Grand Prix on March 26, on NBCSN.

Most teams have released the running orders for their drivers, although there’s still some blanks to be filled in. A link to all teams’ new cars is here.

Here’s who you can expect to see, when, for these two tests. This post will be updated with more info when it arrives:

Haas F1 Team Test Schedule (Haas breakout

Test 1
February 27 – Kevin Magnussen
February 28 – Kevin Magnussen
March 1 – Romain Grosjean
March 2 – Romain Grosjean

Test 2
March 7 – Kevin Magnussen
March 8 – Romain Grosjean
March 9 – Kevin Magnussen
March 10 – Romain Grosjean

Sahara Force India Test Schedule (Force India breakout

Test 1
February 27 – Sergio Perez
February 28 – Esteban Ocon
March 1 – Alfonso Celis Jr.
March 2 – Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon

Test 2
March 7 – Esteban Ocon
March 8 – Sergio Perez
March 9 – Esteban Ocon
March 10 – Sergio Perez

Williams Martini Racing Test Schedule (Williams breakout)

Test 1
February 27 – Felipe Massa
February 28 – Lance Stroll
March 1 – Felipe Massa
March 2 – Lance Stroll

Test 2
March 7 – Lance Stroll
March 8 – Lance Stroll
March 9 – Felipe Massa
March 10 – Felipe Massa

Mercedes AMG Petronas Test Schedule (Mercedes breakout)

Monday 27 February
Morning – Valtteri Bottas
Afternoon – Lewis Hamilton

Tuesday 28 February
Morning – Lewis Hamilton
Afternoon – Valtteri Bottas

Wednesday 1 March
Morning – Valtteri Bottas
Afternoon – Lewis Hamilton

Thursday 2 March
Morning – Lewis Hamilton
Afternoon – Valtteri Bottas

McLaren Honda Test Schedule (McLaren breakout)

Test 1
February 27 – Fernando Alonso
February 28 – Stoffel Vandoorne
March 1 – Fernando Alonso
March 2 – Stoffel Vandoorne

Red Bull Racing Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Daniel Ricciardo
February 28 – Max Verstappen
March 1 – Daniel Ricciardo
March 2 – Max Verstappen

Scuderia Toro Rosso Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Carlos Sainz Jr.
February 28 – Daniil Kvyat
March 1 – TBC
March 2 – TBC

Scuderia Ferrari Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Sebastian Vettel
February 28 – Kimi Raikkonen
March 1 – Sebastian Vettel
March 2 – Kimi Raikkonen

Renault Sport F1 Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Nico Hulkenberg
February 28 – Jolyon Palmer
March 1 – TBC
March 2 – TBC

Sauber F1 Team Test Schedule

Test 1
February 27 – Marcus Ericsson
February 28 – Antonio Giovinazzi

Wednesday 1 March
Morning – Marcus Ericsson
Afternoon – Antonio Giovinazzi

Thursday 2 March
Morning – Marcus Ericsson
Afternoon – Antonio Giovinazzi

Leah Pritchett races to second straight NHRA Top Fuel win

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Photo: Don Schumacher Racing
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CHANDLER, Ariz. (AP) Leah Pritchett raced to her second straight Top Fuel victory to start the season Sunday and successfully defended her NHRA Arizona Nationals title.

Pritchett beat Brittany Force in the final for the second year in a row at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports, finishing in 3.705 seconds at 328.22 mph. Pritchett has three career victories, also winning the season-opener two weeks ago in Pomona, California.

“I’m learning to do what it takes to get into that extreme, severe mindset of what it takes to do what we’re doing,” Pritchett said. “Honestly, I’m trying to keep up with my team for how well they’re doing and make them proud of me as a driver and do the job that is expected of a Don Schumacher racing team and I think we’re doing pretty OK with that. We’re blessed with the equipment and the talent capabilities of the people and everyone that it takes to make it. I’m happy I can hold up my end of the bargain.”

Force ran a 3.704 at 330.39, losing on a holeshot.

Pritchett is the first Top Fuel driver to sweep the first races since Gary Scelzi in 1997.

Matt Hagan won in Funny Car for the second straight event, and Greg Anderson topped the Pro Stock field.

Hagan had a 3.878 at 330.88 in a Dodge Charger R/T to beat defending season champion Ron Capps. Anderson raced to his 87th career victory, beating Drew Skillman with a 6.547 at 211.43 in a Chevrolet Camaro.

James Key notes similarities between Toro Rosso, Mercedes 2017 F1 cars

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Scuderia Toro Rosso Team Principal Franz Tost, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso, Carlos Sainz of Spain and Scuderia Toro Rosso and James Key, Technical Director of Scuderia Toro Rosso unveil the Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 in the pitlane during previews to F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 26, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical chief James Key has noted the similarities in the design between his team’s new Formula 1 car and Mercedes’ W08 EQ Power+.

Toro Rosso unveiled its new STR12 car on Sunday in Barcelona prior to the start of pre-season testing on Monday, with the team’s striking new livery being the biggest talking point.

After returning to current-year power units courtesy of Renault, hopes are high at Faenza that Toro Rosso could be the surprise package of F1 in 2017, particularly given the change in the regulations.

Speaking to reporters following the STR12’s launch, Key was quick to note that Toro Rosso appeared to have coincidentally gone down a similar path to Mercedes when it came to interpreting the new regulations.

“I looked at the Mercedes and thought: ‘Ah, OK. They’ve got our front suspension’. Most people will say we’ve got Mercedes’ front suspension,” Key said, as quoted by Reuters.

“The nose is similar, the front of the side pods is similar, even the bodywork of the sidepods is similar. Let’s just hope the engines are similar!”

Despite being on the same wavelength as the three-time reigning constructors’ championship-winning team, Key admitted he felt a twinge of disappointment.

“On the one hand we were pleased to see someone else has done a similar thing; on the other hand we were disappointed that we weren’t the only team to think of something,” Key said.

“There are many different concepts out there, actually.”

Toro Rosso finished seventh in last year’s constructors’ championship, having spent the latter part of the season largely hamstrung by the 2015-spec Ferrari engine it was using.

Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat return for another year with Toro Rosso in 2017, with the first public running of the STR12 coming in the next few days at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Formula 1 gets colorful: Here are all 10 liveries for 2017

© Getty Images
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Following Scuderia Toro Rosso’s launch of the new STR12 car on Sunday night, the Formula 1 grid is now set ahead of the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona on Monday.

All 10 teams have sported cars that are quite the deviation from their predecessors, as forced by the overhaul of the technical regulations for the new season.

While the changes are mainly in place to make the cars quicker on-track, they also look more visually appealing than the 2016 grid – even if the debate over the ‘shark fin’ is set to rage on.

F1 has also got more colorful, with a number of teams sporting big livery changes that will make cars easier to pick out when you tune in across NBC Sports this season.

Here is what the grid will look like for F1 in 2017.

Mercedes W08 EQ Power+

2017 Silver Arrows Collateral Day Photography - Steve Etherington
© Mercedes AMG Petronas

Red Bull RB13

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© Red Bull Racing

Ferrari SF70H

© Scuderia Ferrari
© Scuderia Ferrari

Force India VJM10

© Sahara Force India
© Sahara Force India

Williams FW40

© Wil
© Williams Martini Racing

McLaren-Honda MCL32

 (Photo by McLaren F1 via Getty Images)
© McLaren F1 via Getty Images

Toro Rosso STR12

© Scuderia T
© Scuderia Toro Rosso

Haas VF-17

© Haas F1 Team
© Haas F1 Team

Renault R.S.17

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Sauber C36

© Sauber
© Sauber