Running on fumes, trust between Austin Dillon, new crew chief delivered Coke 600 win

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CONCORD, N.C. — Somewhere on the pit box for Austin Dillon‘s No. 3 Chevrolet, a light flashed on.

The light gave crew chief Justin Alexander the go-ahead to give Dillon the command he’d been waiting 67 laps – and to some extent 133 Cup races – to hear.

“Turn the switch on and go hard.”

There were three laps left in the Coca-Cola 600. The only thing standing between Dillon and his first Cup win was Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time champion and four-time 600 winner, and an increasingly empty gas tank.

Dillon, Johnson and a small group of other teams had decided to gamble to win the longest race in NASCAR. Dillon last pitted with 70 laps remaining.

How many laps short was the No. 3 Chevrolet after his last visit to pit road?

“Lucky No. 3,” Dillon said.

“It was about 2.7,” clarified Alexander, who was working with Dillon for the first time in the Cup Series. “We told him three.”

Dillon, who had never finished better than third before Sunday, went to work pressuring Johnson.

At the same time, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch had been buzzing through the other fuel gamblers with fresh tires and full fuel tanks, gaining roughly a second on the leaders with each lap.

“I really thought more guys were going to do this strategy, play this out,” Alexander said. “(Truex) was catching us fast. … They were really on pace to catch us and pass us. I knew it was going to be tough at the end. I knew we were going to have to run hard at some point to stay ahead of them.”

Following their pit stop, Dillon had run hard for the first 10 laps of the run, then went into conservation mode for 50 laps.

“You have one of two choices,” Alexander said. “You can figure out how much you need to save, how many laps you need to save, or you can run hard and hope there’s a caution comes out.”

The caution never came.

“A lot of those guys up front with the leaders, they just ran hard,” Alexander said. “With 50 to go we told him what he needed. He did his job.”

Part of that job was putting the pressure on Johnson.

“Seeing Jimmie, I mean, at that point I’m super focused,” Dillon said. “I’m not getting too anxious, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going to win.’ I’m trying to stay focused on what we had to accomplish.”

Driving the No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dillon was trying to do what hadn’t been done since October 2000 when Earnhardt won his last race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Dillon’s boss and grandfather, Richard Childress, was also on the pit box with Alexander. Childress wasn’t sure of his grandson’s chances until a team engineer told him “We’re going to make it” after he asked.

“I knew we had a shot at the end,” Childress said. “When he came with two to go, I felt we had a shot.”

With his crew chief’s decision to go all the way, Dillon said Alexander “had ice in his veins tonight.” As the laps ran down, Dillon said “there wasn’t an abundance of over‑coaching” from over the team’s radio.

“You know what the hardest thing in this whole deal is? It’s trust,” Dillon said. “Trust is a lot of it. Justin trusted me he with the skills that he thought I had to fuel save.”

That trust was built over the course of 14 Xfinity races together dating back to last year. The two won their first race together in that series at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“The only thing about Justin is I never worked with an engineer, a calm guy,” Dillon said. “(He has a) totally different background than what I’m used to, working with. He fits. It’s cool. This week was relatively just smooth. We didn’t argue. We talked about the racecar. That’s what I needed.  I needed someone that wanted to teach me, talk about it, not tell me what was wrong with it.”

Eventually, it fell apart for Johnson and came together for Dillon out of Turn 2 with two laps to go. The No. 48 pulled up lame right as it exited the turn.

“That actually kind of took some pressure off me when he ran out truthfully,” Dillon said. “As soon as that happened, I went back to my (save) mode. They had just kind of cut me loose. I went in, caught him a bunch, then he ran out. ‘All right, back to the mode, you’re fine.’ Then bring it home.”

Less than five miles later, right as Dillon crossed the line to win the 58th Coca-Cola 600, he ran out of gas.

“Man, that’s what the 600 is about,” Dillon said. “There’s strategy, there’s staying in the race. It’s a lengthy one. You got to keep yourself in it to win it, and we did that.”

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Darlington celebrates NASCAR’s 70th birthday by revealing 4th throwback weekend details

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Darlington Raceway on Thursday celebrated the 70th birthday of NASCAR in a big way, announcing details for the fourth annual NASCAR throwback weekend.

The track revealed the 2018 edition of the throwback weekend will celebrate “Seven Decades of NASCAR,” to be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at the legendary 1.366-mile track.

The weekend will include the Cup Series’ Bojangles’ Southern 500 and the Xfinity Series’ Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200.

NASCAR held its first of several organizational meetings on Dec. 14, 1947, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. That ultimately led to the official formation of NASCAR on Feb. 21, 1948.

The throwback weekend will honor and feature highlights of some of the biggest moments in the sport’s history over its first 70 years.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Darlington Raceway and the NASCAR industry to celebrate the sport over a seven decade period during our 2018 throwback weekend,” Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said in a media release.

“We have been era specific the past three years,” Tharp added, “so we felt it was important to recognize the 70th anniversary of NASCAR with our ‘Seven Decades of NASCAR’ celebration next season and give the teams, sanctioning body and others a wider brush to paint a picture capturing memorable moments we might not have celebrated in year’s past.”

Memorable moments to be celebrated include several that took place at Darlington itself, including Ned Jarrett’s record-setting 14-lap victory in the 1965 Southern 500, Ricky Craven’s record-setting photo finish win over Kurt Busch in 2003, and Jimmie Johnson’s 2012 Southern 500 win, which gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career victory, among others.

Cup winners of the first three throwback weekends have been Carl Edwards (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2016) and Denny Hamlin (2017).

As has been the case for the first three throwback weekends, the track will once again issue commemorative tickets for the Southern 500.

“We have produced commemorative tickets for our fans every year of the throwback program, which is an important part of our platform,” Tharp said. “We appreciate how much the fans have supported Darlington Raceway and want them to walk away from our weekend with a special keepsake that recognizes our rich history and honors the stars of our sport.”

Front Row Motorsports adds Michael McDowell, expands technical alliance with Roush Fenway

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Front Row Motorsports will field entries for David Ragan and Michael McDowell in 2018 while expanding its technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, the team announced Thursday.

McDowell joins the Bob Jenkins-owned team after four years of driving the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing before being replaced by Kasey Kahne.

The native of Phoenix, Arizona, McDowell replaces Landon Cassill as Ragan’s teammate.

McDowell, 32, has 249 Cup starts since 2008, but only two full-time seasons under his belt. He made one start for Front Row at Watkins Glen in 2013.

“Since I first drove for Bob at Watkins Glen, we’ve kept in touch and have felt like there might be an opportunity to work together again, and the timing worked out perfectly,” McDowell said in a press release. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a teammate, so I’m really looking forward to working with David, whom I’ve become pretty good friends with over the years. As a team now, we go into the season knowing we have five or six races that put us in position to get a win and earn a spot in the playoffs.”

Ragan returns to Front Row for his fifth season. Ragan earned the organization its first Cup victory in 2013 at Talladega. Ragan has two wins, 15 top fives and 39 top-10 finishes in his Cup career.

“Bob Jenkins and I have developed a good relationship over the years, both professionally and personally,” Ragan said in a press release. “I believe in this team and am proud to have been part of its growth and its successes. I’m excited that Bob and Ford have agreed to take the program to the next level, and I’m happy I’ll be here to help the team continue to grow.”

Crew chief assignments have not been finalized. FRM will announce sponsor partners and driver car numbers at a later date.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Last Ride’ diecast is Lionel Racing’s bestselling ever

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a new benchmark for Lionel Racing’s most purchased diecast in its 25-year history.

Lionel Racing, NASCAR’s official diecast producer, has announced that the diecast of Earnhardt’s “Last Ride” No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup season finale last month is now its bestselling diecast in company history.

The “Last Ride” car is based on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in his rookie Cup season in 2000.

The previous bestseller was another Earnhardt diecast, for his 2014 Daytona 500 win.

Lionel Racing says that QVC’s “For Race Fans Only” show that featured Earnhardt and unveiled the car helped contribute to sales. But even without QVC, sales of the “Last Ride” diecast outpaced the 2014 Daytona 500 diecast by more than 10,000 units.

“The demand for this car has been simply astounding,” Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock said on the company’s website. “The fan response to this diecast is a true measure of how much Earnhardt has meant to both casual NASCAR fans and serious diecast collectors.”

Lionel Racing has also revealed the top-10 selling diecasts for the year, which you can find below. Earnhardt has six cars on the list. Chase Elliott has two and Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney each have one.

Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.