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).

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.

The Ragged Edge: ‘Days of Thunder’ celebrates 27 years

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Back in the yesteryear of 1986, Paramount Pictures released a little movie called Top Gun.

Directed by Tony Scott and starring a young actor named Tom Cruise, the movie depicted a hot-shot, hard-headed fighter pilot named Pete “Maverick” Mitchell who competed for supremacy at an aviation school against a rival nicknamed “Ice Man.”

Backed by the sounds of Kenny Loggins, the Righteous Brothers and Cheap Trick, the two rivals clashed in the skies and on volleyball courts, all while Maverick flirted with a his female instructor, ‎Kelly McGillis’ “Charlie.”

The movie made a lot of money.

Three years later, they made the same movie … sort of. This time, Cruise was piloting stock cars in the world of NASCAR.

Twenty-seven years ago today, Days of Thunder roared into theaters on matched perfect and staggered special tires.

Once again directed by Scott and with the same golden color palate from Top Gun, Cruise portrayed Cole Trickle as he faced off with Michael Rooker’s Rowdy Burns, clashed egos with Robert Duvall’s Harry Hogge and did some more flirting, this time with his doctor, played by Nicole Kidman.

It didn’t make a lot of money, grossing $82 million domestically to Top Gun‘s $176 million.

But who cares?

Almost 30 years later, it’s still the closest fictional representation of NASCAR that’s ever graced the silver screen (we don’t need to mention a certain Will Farrell movie).

Was it completely faithful to stock-car racing?

Of course not, especially since there’s nothin’ stock about a stock car.

Did it have a have bizarre editing that made it look like a race was taking place at Daytona, Darlington and another track at the same time?

You betcha’.

Did the late Bobby Hamilton make his first Cup start driving a car used in the movie?

It’s true! Hamilton qualified third at Phoenix in the No. 51 Chevrolet owned by Hendrick Motorsports and even led five laps.

As absurd as the move could get, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave the movie a positive review. Decades later, Days of Thunder had enough authenticity to have an impact on those in the sport today.

“Makes you feel old, doesn’t it?” Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the New York Times in 2010, the movie’s 20th anniversary. “It was interesting to see our sport be put into the mainstream and be a part of that. I think it did a lot for our sport to be honest with you even though the critics weren’t solid on the movie and lot of people had different opinions about it. It got our sport a lot of exposure. The movie was fun to watch, regardless of whether it’s good or not.”

 (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Four years ago, Kurt Busch paid tribute to the movie by racing one of the paint scheme’s from the movie in the July Xfinity race at Daytona.

Then there’s his brother, Kyle.

Kyle Busch goes by the nickname “Rowdy,” which was the name of Rooker’s character in the movie.

Two years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, his crew chief Adam Stevens, Joe Gibbs and Busch’s wife, Samantha, put their best foot forward for a recreation of the Days of Thunder trailer to promote the Crispy line of M&M’s.

Though in this video, Busch assumed the Cole Trickle role.

He’s no Tom Cruise.

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