Ryan: Dale Earnhardt’s iconic No. 3 is right for Austin Dillon, and it’s more than just a name

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CONCORD, N.C. – Around the last time the No. 3 reached victory lane in NASCAR’s premier series, Austin Dillon was being groomed to inherit the iconic number … by playing baseball.

An accomplished second baseman who played in the 2002 Little League World Series, Dillon grew up with few aspirations or inklings of becoming the de-factor successor to a legendary seven-time champion whose transcendence has been compared with Elvis, John Wayne and Jesus Christ (thanks, Felix Sabates).

Before taking over the number made famous by Dale Earnhardt, there was legitimate wonder if Dillon could be the next Dale Murphy instead.

Dillon, 27, is a late bloomer who didn’t give up baseball (and soccer and basketball, which he discussed in this NASCAR on NBC podcast episode) to focus on racing cars until he was 15 (during an era when most stars are behind the wheel 10 years earlier).

After a lifetime immersed in stock-car racing, it’s telling Dillon couldn’t recall whether he attended Earnhardt’s final victory on Oct. 15, 2000 at Talladega Superspeedway.

“That’s a testament to my family wanting me to do other things,” Dillon said early Monday morning after his Coca-Cola 600 victory. “Heck, I still ended up in a race car. Baseball bats were a lot cheaper, I know that.”

The answer was pure Dillon – a respect for his lineage, an unabashed love of NASCAR, a lighthearted outlook on all of it – and a window into why the seeming lack of preparation in becoming the man who drives The Man’s car was perhaps the best way to prepare for seizing the opportunity.

Dillon was born to shoulder this load – and not just because of his last name.

It’s because of an effortless blending of old-school Richard Childress Racing values with 21st-century social media norms.

“I didn’t want to put just anyone in the 3 car,” team owner Richard Childress said of his grandson. “I probably never would have brought it back. … (It) had to have been one of the Childress family or one of the Earnhardts.

“(Dillon) doesn’t show emotion, but I can tell you away from the track, he knew how much he wanted to win for the 3 fans. I never second-guessed myself bringing it back. I did have a lot of thoughts about bringing it back and the pressure it would be on whoever got in the car.”

That pressure mostly seems nonexistent with Dillon, who is as comfortable with the ride as he is with embracing the ideals that built its mystique.

RCR remains the embodiment of Earnhardt’s North Carolina mill worker roots, back-country swagger and cunning street smarts. While much is made of the fact that Earnhardt was an eighth-grade dropout, it often is forgotten that Childress never finished high school, either.

It should come as no surprise that earlier in the same week that Dillon, who attended High Point University while racing Xfinity and trucks, scored his first Cup victory, he and his grandfather bickered about which chassis to bring to Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was akin to the way that owners of a father-son pipe-fitting business might argue over which PVC supplier to use.

The airing of such mildly dirty laundry, which would be frowned upon by many Cup teams that prefer buttoned-up and image-conscious reputations, is celebrated at RCR as the essence of a high-stakes family business.

“We had an argument about our race cars performing — like face‑to‑face, full-on argument with your grandfather,” Dillon said. “So just letting you know he’s not only my grandfather, he’s my boss, too. It feels amazing to be able to have a good conversation with him, for him to listen to me, and take what little advice I know, because he’s been doing this for so many years.

“To give me enough respect to just hear me out, because I’m a hardheaded man.”

So was Earnhardt, of course, but it would be reductive and unfair simply to credit Dillon’s successes (truck and Xfinity championships, too) to rekindling some of The Intimidator’s verve at RCR. Kevin Harvick, who literally had to fill Earnhardt’s seat 16 years ago, was the closest approximation, and the strain often left him weary.

It’s more accurate to say that Dillon is a key link between the organization’s storied past and a future that has vacillated between bright and uncertain since Feb. 18, 2001.

Based in Welcome, North Carolina, the longtime perception of RCR is as a race team run out of the woods, where grizzled mechanics use cherry pickers to lift engines out of trees.

In reality, there always has been a sophistication belied by its rural location, but its commitment to technology culturally has become more pronounced.

RCR’s greatest success recently has come with the engineering-driven duo of crew chief Luke Lambert and Ryan Newman.

Eric Warren, the RCR director of competition with a doctorate of aerospace engineering from N.C. State, was saluted by Childress for supervising the recent overhaul that put crew chief Justin Alexander (another engineer) in charge of Dillon’s team before its breakthrough win in the Coca-Cola 600.

Former crew chief Slugger Labbe is accomplished in his own right, and his no-nonsense style actually was a better fit with the longtime RCR brand. But the team’s direction is toward the engineering that has enveloped NASCAR in the past 15 years.

It’s been in fits and starts, though, as evidenced by Dillon’s rough start this season before Charlotte.

“I told someone the other day, ‘We’re not down, we’re just trying to figure our way to get back to where I know we’re capable of running,’” Childress said. “I know we got the people.  I know we got the equipment. We may be the smaller of all the teams out there because of some of the resources. But we have everything it takes to win.”

And in Dillon, the team has a driver who bridges all of the divides.

He embraces RCR’s predilection for controversy and confrontation – but he does it on Twitter unlike his grandfather. Childress dropped the social network because of trolls that “I wanted to invite down to the Walmart parking lot.”

His grandson can let the digs go with Millennial nonchalance.

“Haters gonna hate,” Dillon said with a smile. “They keep sipping that Hater‑Ade.

“I’m just glad we proved ’em wrong. Feels pretty dang good.”

Though he hasn’t enjoyed the success of Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano, Dillon has relished publicly challenging the establishment. There have been dustups with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick in which he hasn’t backed down – again, channeling the outlaw country spirit of RCR.

Lest we forget, “Hold my watch” was a thing long before “hold my beer” became the hottest of Internet catchphrases.

It’s one of many axioms that are innate for Dillon.

“The best guys have been hated in this sport, truthfully,” he said. “If people don’t like you, you’re still doing something right, I feel like, because there’s just as many that do. It feels amazing.”

And to the detractors who say it should feel different because he won at Charlotte via fuel mileage?

“They can kiss my ring,” he laughed.

It was an Earnhardt-esque reply.

You can’t teach that – or train for it.

XXX

So putting aside the niggling fact that myself or any of the other three dozen or so media types with access to the mic should have just asked this when we had the chance at Charlotte shortly after midnight Monday …

Yo, Kyle. Why you mad, bro?

Actually, there could be many reasons.

The most obvious is that the runner-up finish in the Coca-Cola 600 is at least the fifth near-miss at a victory (Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond, Talladega) for Busch, whose winless streak stands at 28 races and nearly 11 months.

There also is the fact that this was the second loss to an RCR car (Newman at Phoenix) this year for Busch despite being faster for the duration of the race.

And there’s the matter of Joe Gibbs Racing remaining winless 12 races into the season despite turning a corner at Charlotte.

Also notable is that reaching the media center dais at Charlotte requires walking virtually right through victory lane, so Busch likely had a view of Dillon’s celebration just before sitting down to take questions.

None of this, of course, negates the complaints that Busch churlishly fulfilled his media center interview obligations with the petulance of a first-grader.

It’s fair to ask for dignity and grace from high-profile athletes who suffer major disappointments.

It also is fair to examine the context behind tantrums … and also ask if it’s necessary to engage in the condescension, righteousness and shaming that gleefully lined the lockers of NASCAR High School on social media this week.

XXX

How married are Charlotte Motor Speedway and NASCAR to running the Coca-Cola 600 under the lights on Sunday night?

How about during the day on Saturday afternoon?

Here’s why: The racing – as evidenced by the first quarter of Sunday’s race at Charlotte – is better in the day. There isn’t much happening Saturday anyway (and the Xfinity race could move to Friday when the track currently is dark). And while being the kicker of the “biggest day in motorsports” narrative is nice, Charlotte currently has no hope of matching the competitive appeal of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is enjoying a golden age of passing.

There has been an average of 43 lead changes over the last six editions of the Indianapolis 500. That would be a tough act to follow in and of itself, never mind the luster of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing at the world’s most famous racetrack.

Instead of going after Indy, why not try to upstage it by holding the 600 first on Saturday afternoon while the Brickyard is dark?

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In electing to move both of Richmond International Raceway’s 2018 races back under the lights, the track and NASCAR both said they were “listening to the fans.”

The hearing must have been selective. Surely, the move wouldn’t have been made based off listening to those in attendance or watching last month. Those fans witnessed the best race of 2017.

Yes, it was unseasonably warm this season (emphasis on “unseasonably”), but the racing has been unquestionably better in sunshine the past three years.

In its past three day races, Richmond enjoyed its final lead changes on the last lap (Carl Edwards over Kyle Busch 2016) and with 19 and 47 laps remaining.

The earliest final lead change in the past three night races came with 86 laps left.

There also has been an argument that “tradition” somehow necessitates racing under the lights at RIR. Here’s a friendly reminder the track has played host to Cup races in some form since 1953 … and only between 1998-2015 were both annual Cup races scheduled on Saturday nights.

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Next year will mark voting for the 10th class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame – as well as a good time for re-evaluating the process as the shrine reaches an even 50 inductees.

A minimum voting percentage seems a must considering that as balloting becomes more fragmented, it increases the likelihood of sub-40 percent elections.

Another way to address the integrity of the vote would be reducing the number of nominees from the current 20. Though NASCAR doesn’t release full totals, it seems feasible that at least three to four nominees annually receive only a few votes anyway.

XXX

Before the Coca-Cola 600 turned into a fuel-mileage race, Martin Truex Jr. was in striking distance of a significant milestone in playoff points.

If he had won the third stage and the race, Truex would have 22 playoff points – or more than a third of the maximum possible in a three-stage race (which he accomplished at Las Vegas Motor Speedway).

It is difficult to grasp how this will affect the championship race until the playoffs unfold, but Truex seems well on the way to insulating himself against at least one poor result through each of the first two rounds (last year, he was eliminated by an engine failure in the second round after winning two of three in the first round).

Cup starting lineup for Sunday’s race at Atlanta

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Kyle Busch will lead the field to the green for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and have Ryan Newman beside him on the front row.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing each placed all four of its cars in the top 12 of the starting lineup.

JGR will have Busch first, Daniel Suarez fourth, Erik Jones 10th and Denny Hamlin 12th. Stewart-Haas Racing will have Kevin Harvick third, Kurt Busch seventh, Clint Bowyer ninth and Aric Almirola 11th.

Reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. will start 35th in the 36-car field after his car failed to pass inspection before qualifying.

Click here for starting lineup

 

Martin Truex Jr.’s car chief ejected after Atlanta inspection failures

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HAMPTON, Georgia – Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota was the first team to struggle with NASCAR’s new optical scan inspection, and the punishment was a key crew member.

Truex’s Camry failed to clear prequalifying inspection three times Friday, resulting in the ejection of car chief Blake Harris from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Truex will start 35th in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said the car had multiple problems with body scans “for rear-wheel openings and rear-toe failures.”

Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said the team couldn’t get a handle on the new Optical Scanning Station. Many teams, including Furniture Row Racing, have replicas in their shops of the system, which relies on high-definition cameras and projectors.

“It’s a new process,” Garone said. “We’re working hard, collectively, the whole garage is to figure the boundaries out and how to get through, and NASCAR is working with their equipment the same way.

“It’s just tough. It’s tough. One time you go through, the next time you don’t. You go through again and some things pass that didn’t pass the time before. It’s just frustrating, but we’ll get it all worked out. It’s just a matter of time.

Crew chief Cole Pearn had a viscerally negative reaction at the station when told by NASCAR officials the car hadn’t passed on its third scan, seven minutes before qualifying was scheduled to begin.

Garone said the vibe within the team was “pretty volatile at the moment, because you’re trying to figure out what you actually did, especially when you feel like maybe the equipment itself is off a little bit. It’s also on our side as well. It’s just a weird set of circumstances. The tolerances are very tight. It’s difficult to get through and push where you need to and be conservative where you need to and figure it all out. It does change every time you go through.”

Miller took umbrage at the suggestion the new station wasn’t reliable (which was a frequent criticism of the previous Laser Inspection Station that the optical scan replaced).

“Of course they’re going to say that, but we had 20 people make it through on the first attempt and multiple people saying how consistent the rear-wheel alignment was vs. our equipment last year,” Miller said. “The only comments I had today on the rear-wheel alignment part was positive comments, not negative comments. We ended up with one (car failing to clear inspection). All I can say is I feel like we did our job.”

Miller said after the third failure, it’s NASCAR’s discretion to suspend a team member and the car chief was chosen because “we’ve tapped the car chief as an important individual.” Miller said if Truex had failed a fourth time, the team would have faced a 10-point deduction under a new penalty structure this season that is focused on race weekend punishments.

Miller implied the team had chosen to skip trying to clear inspection a fourth time to avoid risking further penalty, but Garone said the decision was made because “well, we’re out of time.

“That wasn’t a decision other than a timing decision,” he said. “You know what happens when you rush? The driver goes out, and he’s all amped up, and it’s just not worth doing.”

Truex, who will start 35th Sunday, also will serve a 30-minute practice hold Saturday.

Pole-sitter Kyle Busch, whose Joe Gibbs Racing team supplies Toyota chassis and has an alliance with Truex’s team, was surprised the No. 78 was the only inspection casualty Friday.

“I certainly would have guessed there would have been more; that they wouldn’t have been the only ones,’ Busch said. “I honestly have no clue on what happened to them. I don’t have that information from any of our guys. So I’ll have to figure out what they missed out on being able to get through the OSS.”

Denny Hamlin on Daytona 500 spat with Bubba Wallace: ‘It’s done’

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HAMPTON, Georgia — Denny Hamlin seems to be putting his brief feud with Bubba Wallace in the rearview mirror before Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After qualifying 12th for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (and electing to skip the final round because his No. 11 team felt it wasn’t worth the tradeoff on tire wear), Hamlin told a small group of reporters that “I’d say it’s over with. Moving on. Trust me, it’s done.”

Was the Joe Gibbs Racing driver concerned about the fallout from Daytona?

“Doesn’t concern me,” Hamlin said. “I’ll just keep moving forward and try to do the best I can and let whoever tell their side and let it be.”

Earlier Friday at Atlanta, Wallace said he had been kicked out of a golf group that Hamlin is in because of their feud, which started on the last lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500. He also called Hamlin a “dumb ass” for estimating last week on a podcast that 70 percent of NASCAR drivers are using Adderall.

Did Hamlin plan to talk to Wallace?

“It’s done. It’s done. It’s done.”

Hamlin did briefly address Kevin Harvick’s comments that several veteran drivers are angry at him for the Adderall comment.

“I’ve talked to Kevin,” Hamlin said. “We’re good. Yeah. Trust me, it’s all done, guys.”

 

Kyle Busch zooms to first career Atlanta Cup pole

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Kyle Busch denied Ryan Newman a record-breaking eighth career pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway, nipping Newman to take the top starting spot for Sunday’s race.

Busch earned the pole with a lap of 184.652 mph. Newman ran a lap of 184.419 mph in the final round — a difference of 38-thousandths of a second.

Newman will start second and be followed by Kevin Harvick (184.388 mph), Daniel Suarez (184.229) and Brad Keselowski (183.856). Newman remains tied with Buddy Baker for most career poles at Atlanta with seven. Newman, though, will make his 12th career front row start at Atlanta.

This is Busch’s first career Cup pole at Atlanta and 28th in his career.

Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott all failed to qualify in the top 24 to advance to the second round.

“We’re way off,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “Not even close.”

Dillon will start 25th, Blaney 26th and Elliott 27th.

Martin Truex Jr. did not make a qualifying attempt after his car failed three times to pass inspection. Truex won seven of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks last season. He was eighth at Atlanta a year ago. Truex will start 35th in the 36-car field.

Click here for qualifying results

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