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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