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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 at Miami, Brad Keselowski leads Championship 4 drivers

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Kyle Larson won Stage 1 of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating by leading 67 of the stage’s 80 laps, holding a nine-second edge when he took the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, here’s how the four Championship 4 drivers finished after the first 80 laps of the scheduled 267-lap event: Brad Keselowski is second, Kyle Busch is third, Kevin Harvick is fourth and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.

Truex, with six of his seven wins this season coming on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, wasted little time to take the lead away from pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

The first caution of the race came out on Lap 6 when Joey Gase appeared to blow a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall hard.

During the subsequent pit stop, the only Championship 4 driver to hit pit road for four new tires was Keselowski, putting him off-sequence of the other contenders.

The move worked, though, as Keselowski quickly climbed from ninth on the restart on Lap 9 to third by Lap 12 and second by Lap 14.

Larson, who also pitted with Keselowski, took the lead away from Truex on Lap 13 and held on for the remaining 67 laps of the stage.

On Lap 38, Jimmie Johnson blew a right rear tire and came to pit road for four new tires. Even though there was no caution, all four championship contenders pitted over the following two laps.

On Lap 58, Harvick passed Truex and into third place for the first time in the race, zeroing on Keselowski in second.

Johnson got into the wall again on Lap 60, even though there was no caution, and sustained moderate damage, pitting for four tires and fuel.

Kyle Busch passed Harvick to take over third on Lap 77.

Sixth through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer.

Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans on what the driver means to them

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The fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is large and devoted.

Those fans, affectionately called “Junior Nation,” has voted Earnhardt as NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row.

Justin Hartley of NBC’s “This is Us” is a member of Earnhardt’s fan base. The actor narrates the above essay on the close relationship between the driver and his fans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Bob Costas about his career, legacy before final Cup start

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Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last start as a full-time Cup driver in NASCAR.

NBC Sports’ Bob Costas sat down with the 14-time most popular driver before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get Earnhardt’s thoughts before he climbed in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the last time.

Earnhardt addressed what he hopes his legacy will be after 20 years in the sport as a driver, including his impact on attitudes towards concussions in sports in general.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports in 2018, also talked about what life has in store for him in the near future.

Earnhardt also made sure to credit his devoted fan base for making his career possible.

“I understand the driving force behind my success and opportunity in this sport, whether it be inside the car or outside the car, is all because of Jr. Nation,” Earnhardt said. “This year we’ve tried our best to show appreciation to them.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

Furniture Row Racing going for Cup title after year of success, tragedy

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It’s been a historic year for Furniture Row Racing, the Cup team that has its base of operations in an old water bed factory in Denver, Colorado.

With Martin Truex Jr. piloting the No. 78 Toyota, they won a team record seven races and a series record six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Combined with a dominating performance under the new stage racing format, Truex has put the team in its second Championship 4 in three years.

But it’s also been a season of perseverance and tragedy.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan narrates the above video essay on the story of Furniture Row Racing’s 2017 season.