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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Hamilton: ‘Incredible’ to surpass Schumacher’s Hungary win tally

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Greatc Britain and Mercedes GP lifts the trophy on the podium after winning the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton finds it “incredible” to have surpassed seven-time Formula 1 world champion Michael Schumacher’s number of Hungarian Grand Prix victories after taking a fifth win in Budapest on Sunday.

Hamilton arrived in Hungary tied with Schumacher on four victories at the Hungaroring, his first success at the track coming in his debut season in 2007.

Further wins in 2009, 2012 and 2013 drew him level with Schumacher before a dominant display on Sunday saw him beat Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to stand alone on five wins.

“It’s pretty incredible to hear those words, especially when you think I grew up watching Michael,” Hamilton said when informed of the record.

“So to now have had similar, if not one more, than he had here, is just incredible.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the great people I’ve worked with, both at McLaren-Mercedes and now here. It’s a result of great work from such a large group of people.

“I’m really just a chink in the chain. I love it here. I hope there’s more to come before I stop.

“It was not the easiest grand prix I’ve had here in the ten years, nine, ten years – but definitely one I enjoyed.”

RC Enerson joins a list of those Coyne have provided IndyCar debut

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For RC Enerson, the opportunity to debut in this week’s Honda Indy 200 with Dale Coyne Racing means the 19-year-old out of New Port Richey, Fla. will join a decent list of those who’ve started with Coyne and then gone on to bigger and better things in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

He’ll make his debut in the team’s trademark No. 19 Honda next week.

Enerson first hailed the Mazda Road to Indy, where he spent the last five seasons (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda from 2012 to 2014, then Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2015 and partial 2016), for helping prepare him to be the driver he is now.

“The Mazda Road to Indy takes a ton of credit for that,” Enerson told NBC Sports. “The whole ladder system is designed to help you get here. The experience is invaluable. It’s such a great program; it brought me all the way up. We’re to the end of it and they deserve a lot of credit with their preparations, with being at IndyCar events, so you’re going to these huge events in a feeder series. It prepares you really well.”

He then thanked the Coyne team for their immediate ease to work with as he prepares for his debut, alongside teammate Conor Daly in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda.

“The team is awesome. I love this team,” he said.

“The vibe around the whole team is just amazing. There’s not a lot of pressure on me. They basically came in and said, ‘You’re not expected to set the world on fire.’

“But today we made great use of our time. It was great to not only test, but be able to make changes to the car and make setup tweaks.

“We learned a lot of valuable information that will help us for our debut.”

So how does Enerson fit into the rookies-at-Dale Coyne history books?

Here’s a look at the most recent rookies who have made their series debut with Coyne, since the IndyCar/Champ Car merger at the start of 2008:

  • 2015: Rocky Moran Jr.* (Long Beach), Rodolfo Gonzalez (Barber)
  • 2014: Carlos Huertas (St. Petersburg)
  • 2013: James Davison (Mid-Ohio), Stefan Wilson (Baltimore)
  • 2011: James Jakes (St. Petersburg)
  • 2008: Mario Moraes (Homestead)

*Daly also made his first IndyCar road or street course start with Coyne at Long Beach last year, deputizing for the injured Rocky Moran Jr., who was due to debut at the street race last year.

Other notables who have debuted for Coyne include NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy (1991, Long Beach) and other racing veterans Ryan Dalziel (2005, Toronto), Darren Manning (2002, Rockingham) and Andre Lotterer (2002, Mexico City).

Townsend Bell, Tracy’s fellow NBCSN IndyCar analyst, also ran in a Coyne-crewed but Patrick Racing-entered No. 19 car at two European oval races in 2001, his first two IndyCar starts.

Manor: Keeping Haryanto in F1 line-up still ‘plan A’

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Rio Haryanto of Indonesia and Manor Racing in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Manor racing director Dave Ryan says that keeping Rio Haryanto in its car for the second half of the Formula 1 season remains “plan A” despite the Indonesian’s search for funding.

Haryanto became Indonesia’s first F1 driver at the beginning of the season, making his debut with Manor in Australia after spending four years in GP2.

However, Haryanto only had funding to secure the seat until after the Hungarian Grand Prix, confirming in Budapest that he was still working on a deal to be in Germany this weekend.

“If you see me at Hockenheim, then I think that would secure the whole season,” Haryanto told reporters last week.

Speaking to Reuters, Manor F1 chief Dave Ryan confirmed that talks are ongoing with Haryanto’s management to ensure he remains in the car for the rest of the season.

“We’ve got Rio onboard and we’re working with Rio’s management and we’re doing everything we can to secure his drive for the rest of the year,” Ryan said.

Ryan did confirm that Manor has plans in place should talks break down and a replacement for Haryanto be required.

“We’ve got a plan B, we’ve got a plan C, we’ve got a plan D,” he said.

“Of course we have options and we have ideas.

“But plan A is to keep Rio in the car so that’s the intention.”

Besides its race line-up of Haryanto and Pascal Wehrlein, Manor also has 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi and GP2 race winner Jordan King on its books.

Rossi raced for Manor five times in 2015, becoming the first American grand prix driver in eight years before being dropped into a reserve role to make way for Haryanto and Wehrlein.

However, a return may prove difficult in the immediate future given his commitments in IndyCar in the no. 98 Andretti/Herta Autosport entry.

A report from motorsport.com over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend claims that McLaren junior Stoffel Vandoorne is an option to replace Haryanto, having made his F1 debut in Bahrain in place of the injured Fernando Alonso.

The entry list for this weekend’s German Grand Prix will be confirmed on Thursday, by which point a decision will need to have been taken by Manor.

Alonso content with set of P7 finishes in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso was happy to be the ‘best of the rest’ behind the three fastest teams over the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend after finishing seventh in every session.

McLaren enjoyed its strongest qualifying performance of the season as Alonso and teammate Jenson Button made it through to Q3.

Although Button’s race was ruined early on by a brake issue, Alonso rose to sixth in the first stintt before falling behind Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen as the race wore on.

The two-time world champion was left to settle for seventh at the flag – curiously, also his finishing position in FP1, FP2, FP3 and qualifying.

“Well, P7 has been my position all weekend!” Alonso said.

“It’s a pity we couldn’t improve this afternoon but still I think we were best of the rest today.

“Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari are out of reach at the moment for everyone – they’re on another level – so, in the other mini-championship we’re racing in, we were quite competitive and I feel we delivered the maximum we could today.

“There wasn’t much action in the race though. For us, it was a little bit of a boring afternoon at some points – not the usual Hungaroring show – and the only retirement, unfortunately, was Jenson.

“I’m happy about how the weekend went and hopefully we can keep this up progress. We’ve been more or less competitive here and at Silverstone, on two very different circuits, so I’m looking forward to next weekend at Hockenheim.”