Hulkenberg finally sees checkered flag in Oz with sixth-place result

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For the first time in his Formula One career, Nico Hulkenberg made it to the end of an Australian Grand Prix last weekend, claiming a sixth-place finish as part of a double points day for Sahara Force India.

The talented German, who migrated to Vijay Mallya’s squad over the winter from Sauber, originally placed seventh but moved up one position after Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo lost his runner-up result and was disqualified for a fuel flow irregularity.

Prior to Saturday night, Albert Park had not been a very kind place to Hulkenberg.

In the 2010 and 2012 Aussie GPs, he was victimized each time by a first-lap incident and last year with Sauber, he was unable to start at all due to a hydraulic problem on his car.

So, if Hulkenberg was heard going ‘Whew!’ after his race Saturday night, it would have been most understandable.

Hulkenberg rose as high as fourth in the early going, holding Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Jenson Button at bay for a time until he lost out to both of them in the pits.

Late in the going, he was unable to keep back a hard charging Valtteri Bottas and eventually settled for P7 – at least, until Ricciardo’s DQ.

“I made a strong start and enjoyed good track position for the first two stints when I was running up in fourth,” Hulkenberg said. “The only real issue I had was some front left graining on the soft tires, which never really cleared up and that compromised my first two stints.

“It was a shame to lose two positions at my second stop [to Button and Alonso] but it looks like some of the cars around us have a bit more pace at the moment.”

Still, he said “it’s nice to reward everyone with some points at the first race.”

New teammate Sergio Perez also made progress in his Force India debut before finishing P11. But the aforementioned issue with Ricciardo enabled Perez to move up one spot to 10th in the race results and, more importantly, earn one world championship point to start the year.

Perez suffered a first-lap puncture following contact with Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez and was forced to pit, but caught a break when a Safety Car appearance allowed him to catch up with the field.

After that, Perez moved up the scoring pylon but was unable to get past Adrian Sutil on track. He would eventually do so in the pits but by that point, catching Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat for P10 had become too tall an order.

“It’s positive to finish the race, because it gives the team lots of information and hopefully that will make us stronger for Malaysia,” Perez said before being elevated into the points, which helped Force India take home nine points altogether from Australia.

Not the biggest of hauls, but certainly a welcome one.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.