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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NASCAR America: Ken Squier on the ‘Mark of an Earnhardt’ at Daytona

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Ken Squier was there in 1979 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. made his first start in the Daytona 500 and Squier was there when Earnhardt finally won the race in 1998.

There’s no one better than Squier to narrate an essay on the importance of the history of the Earnhardt name and family to the track.

“Dale Earnhardt Sr. needed Daytona and Daytona needed Dale Earnhardt,” Squier says. “As Daytona grew, Dale grew.”

The Intimidator won 34 times at Daytona and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has added 17 of his own wins in his NASCAR career. His last chance to add to the “Earnhardt mark” on Daytona comes Saturday in the Coke Zero 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

NASCAR America’s analysts discussed what the legacy of the Earnhardt name is with Earnhardt Jr.’s impending retirement.

“The way their lives were intertwined, what they did on the race track has been intertwined,” Kyle Petty said. “The way the fans perceive what Senior was, what Junior is and what Junior has meant for this sport. What he has done recently as a leader of the sport, he has stepped into his father’s shoes. … When Junior stood up last year and said I’m not getting in that car because of my head injuries, I’m going to sit out.’ That’s leadership.

NASCAR America teaming up with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

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Wednesday will mark the beginning of a new relationship between NASCAR America and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Every Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. ET, a NASCAR on NBC personality will appear on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive,” which is hosted by Pete Pistone and Mike Bagley.

Analyst Steve Letarte will be the first guest.

Pistone will also make regular appearances on NASCAR America.

Pistone joined NASCAR America Tuesday night to preview the new relationship and the storylines heading into the second half of the NASCAR season.

The main theme of the discussion was the building frustration for Joe Gibbs Racing, which is winless through 16 races. Though the driver getting the most attention has been Kyle Busch, there’s three other drivers who are looking to win, including Denny Hamlin.

“We had his crew chief Mike Wheeler on the ‘Morning Drive’ last week and the frustration, you can feel it there,” Pistone said. “They also felt a bit optimistic, especially going to Sonoma because he runs so well there, he ran so well and almost won the race last year until Tony Stewart got him on the last lap. … I still think there’s optimism there in the 11 camp, they’re finding the speed they’ve been missing so far in the first half of the year. The next race at Daytona could be the place you see Denny Hamlin bust down the door to victory lane.”

Watch the above video for more from Pete Pistone.

NASCAR America: Sprint racing keeps Kyle Larson in shape for NASCAR

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Kyle Larson is in the midst of his best NASCAR Cup Season to date. He leads the points standings and has two wins, at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

You might be able to attribute his hot streak to another form of racing.

Larson, a product of the dirt racing circuit, told NASCAR America’s Marty Snider the 25 sprint car races he’s allowed to drive in each year by Chip Ganassi Racing keep him on his toes physically.

“I’ve gotten a little bit into working out this year, I’d rather race to get my exercise in,” Larson said. “Racing to me is fun, but also exercise and it keeps your mind in it. You’re putting yourself in more racing situations than everybody else in the field. I think it definitely benefits me.”

Larson maybe spent by this time next week. Following Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona (at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC), Larson will compete in four straight days of sprint cars race in Pennsylvania.

The Ganassi driver goes to Daytona looking to finish what he started in the Daytona 500. He was leading at the white flag before he ran out of gas in Turns 1 and 2.

“It’s difficult, it’s a long race,” Larson said. “There’s so much that goes on throughout the race, it’s hard to catch on TV. But we’re figuring it out all it in the car and learning who is good to work with and who is not. It’s interesting. It’s definitely a different style of racing I’m getting used to.”

Larson’s best finish in at Daytona was sixth place in last year’s July race.

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

NASCAR America: Scan All: Anger and miscommunication at Sonoma Raceway

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Some people like to call road courses the new short tracks in NASCAR and at the end of Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma, many cars backed up that assessment.

When there’s beat up cars, that means tempers flared, which makes for an interesting edition of NASCAR America’s Scan All. This week’s version gives you some of the best scanner traffic from Kevin Harvick‘s win at the California track.

Highlights include:

  • Israeli-born driver Alon Day, making his Cup debut, telling crew chief Randy Cox he can’t understand his accent. “You have to talk a bit slower so I can understand every word.”
  • “I needed a lot more help on that. The spotter doesn’t tell me ****.” – Danica Patrick after her Lap 14 accident with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • “We’ve got your in-car camera here. That was fun to watch. A little scary, but fun to watch.” – Crew chief Ernie Cope to AJ Allmendinger after he went from 11th to first in one lap on a restart.
  • “This year just could not get any better,” the sarcastic response of Kyle Busch to receiving a pit road speeding penalty.

Watch the above video for more from Scan All.