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?

XXX

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.

XXX

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).

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”

RCR, Hendrick to collaborate on Chevy engine

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Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing will team up on research and development of a common Chevrolet engine after the conclusion of the 2020 season, the teams announced Thursday.

The two organizations will continue to function independently as they “fully leverage the knowledge and intellectual property of our two successful programs to advance Chevrolet’s engine for NASCAR,” they said in a joint statement.

Engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing (via ECR Engines) have earned a combined 20 Cup titles and the two teams have totaled 369 Cup wins.

Jeff Andrews, the new executive vice president at Hendrick Motorsports, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Thursday that discussions about the venture between his team and RCR began two years ago.

“The day was going to come when we really needed to figure out how to get these two programs together,” Andrews said. “A tremendous amount of talent, people and a tremendous amount of equipment and resources between the two programs. How could we do this? How could we take the longstanding heritage between these two companies and get that together to start working on an alliance that truly would produce the ultimate powertrain for Chevrolet NASCAR?”

RCR is headquartered in Welcome, North Carolina and Hendrick’s campus is in Concord, North Carolina.

“I think when you step back and look at it, ultimately you have to get to a point to where, when you have these resources and you have these people, we have to do what’s best for Chevrolet, first and foremost, to continue to push their performance and get them back to the front of the field and get them wins and championships,” Andrews said. “Really, we work together in a very similar fashion. We started two years ago on the aerodynamic side with our groups working very close together and we’re kind of taking somewhat of that template and applying to the engine side in starting this joint alliance.”

Chevrolet last won a Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh championship. Since then, Chevy has not had a car reach the championship four.

The Cup Series is in the middle of the Round of 12. The series races Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Of the 12 cars that remain, four are Chevrolets: Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch.

Chevrolet cars have won six times through 30 races this season. That’s compared to seven wins in all of 2019, four in 2018 and and 10 in 2017.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega

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The NASCAR playoffs roll on this weekend to Talladega Superspeedway.

All three national series will be racing on NASCAR’s largest oval. The weekend will be capped off by the Cup Series’ Round of 12 race.

More: Denny Hamlin on pole for Cup race at Talladega

MORE: 2021 Cup schedule features new tracks, bold changes 

Here is the weekend schedule for Talladega:

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Oct. 2

Noon – 2 p.m. – Driver motorhome parking (screening in progress)

1 – 3 p.m. – Truck Series haulers enter (screening and equipment unload)

3 – 9 p.m. – Truck Series garage open

3 – 8 p.m. – Truck Series garage access screening

3:30 – 4 p.m. – Truck Series rookie meeting (teleconference)

5:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (teleconference)

6 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

8:30 – 10:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

 

Saturday, Oct. 3

7:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

10 a.m. – Truck Series garage opens

10 a.m. – Noon – Truck Series garage access (screening in progress)

12:45 p.m. – Truck Series drivers report to vehicles

1 p.m. – Truck Series race; 94 laps/250.04 miles (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

4 p.m. – Truck Series haulers exit

4:05 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

4:30 p.m. – Xfinity race; 113 laps/300.58 miles (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:30 p.m. – Cup rookie meeting (electronic communication)

6 p.m. – Cup driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

7:30 p.m. – Xfinity haulers exit

8:30 – 10:30 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening in progress and equipment unload)

 

Sunday, Oct. 4

7 a.m. – Cup garage opens

7 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Cup garage access screening in progress

1:30 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

1:30 p.m. – Driver introductions

2 p.m. – Cup race; 188 laps/500 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

2021 NASCAR Cup schedule features new tracks, bold changes

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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The 2021 Cup schedule features the first race on a dirt track for the series in more than 50 years, three new venues and six road course points races.

Responding to fan interest, the series adds three road course events to the 2021 schedule. Those new races are May 23 at Circuit of the Americas, July 4 at Road America and Aug. 15 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The other points races on road courses in 2021 will be at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte Roval. The Daytona road course will host the Busch Clash exhibition race.

The race that might gain the most attention, though, could be the March 28 Cup race at Bristol. The track will be converted to dirt.

There are no midweek races. Pocono Raceway continues to have the only doubleheader weekend. There is a two-week break in late July/early August during the Olympics. NBC’s portion of the schedule will begin with the June 20 race at Nashville Superspeedway.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president & chief racing development officer, says the plan is to have practice and qualifying for new venues (Circuit of the Americas, Road America, Nashville) and new configurations (Indy road course) along with key events (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Phoenix championship weekend). The plan is for the other races to be one-day shows.

The schedule is flush with change. Here’s a look at those changes:

NEW EVENTS

March 28 – Bristol Dirt race: It is the first Cup race on dirt since 1970 at Raleigh, a race won by Richard Petty.

May 9 – Darlington: The track that NASCAR returned to after the season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic this year will host two races in 2021. The track adds a spring date and it will be run on Mother’s Day. It will be only the third time in the last 40 years Cup has run on Mother’s Day. The added race comes from Michigan International Speedway, which will have one race in 2021.

May 23 – Circuit of the Americas: Inaugural race for the series on the road course in Austin, Texas that has hosted Formula One and IndyCar, among other series.

June 13 – All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway: First time the All-Star race has been held at this track. Marks third different year for the event after being in Charlotte in 2019 and Bristol this year.

June 20 – Nashville: The 1.333-mile track will hold its first race for Cup. The track hosted Xfinity and Truck races from 2001-11. The date comes from a Dover, leaving that race with one NASCAR race weekend in 2021. This weekend begins NBC Sports’ coverage of NASCAR races.

July 4- Road America: Will host the Cup Series for the first time. Gets holiday weekend with July 4 date. The date comes from Chicagoland Speedway, which will not have a NASCAR race in 2021.

July 11 – Atlanta: Kentucky race date moves to Atlanta to give track a second race. The first race at the track in 2021 will be March 21.

Aug. 15 – Indianapolis road course: After comping on the oval since 1994, Cup moves to the road course. Will be a part of a race weekend with the IndyCar Series. 

OTHER DATES OF NOTE

Feb. 21 – Miami: Moves to second race of the season and comes a week after Daytona 500.

Feb. 28 – Auto Club: Moves up a week earlier and this will be its last race as a 2-mile track. Track will be converted into a short track after this event for 2022.

April 10 – Martinsville: Track hosted its first night race in June but did not have fans because of the coronavirus. This April race will be at night. Provided fans will be allowed at that point, it will be their first time to witness a night Cup race there.

July 25 & Aug. 1: No Cup races because of the Olympics. 

Sept. 5 – Nov. 7: Cup playoffs. Same 10 tracks as 2020. Only difference is Texas and Kansas flip-flop weekends in the Round of 8. Texas will open that round on Oct. 17. Kansas will follow on Oct. 24. Round of 8 ends at Martinsville on Oct. 31. Phoenix again will host the title race, doing so Nov. 7.

 

2021 NASCAR CUP SERIES SCHEDULE

(Times, weekend schedule and TV info to be announced later)

 

Date Race / Track
Tuesday, February 9 Clash (Daytona Road Course)
Thursday, February 11 Duel at Daytona
Sunday, February 14 Daytona 500
Sunday, February 21 Homestead-Miami
Sunday, February 28 Auto Club
Sunday, March 7 Las Vegas
Sunday, March 14 Phoenix
Sunday, March 21 Atlanta
Sunday, March 28 Bristol Dirt
Saturday, April 10 Martinsville
Sunday, April 18 Richmond
Sunday, April 25 Talladega
Sunday, May 2 Kansas
Sunday, May 9 Darlington
Sunday, May 16 Dover
Sunday, May 23 COTA
Sunday, May 30 Charlotte
Sunday, June 6 Sonoma
Sunday, June 13 All-Star (Texas)
Sunday, June 20 Nashville Superspeedway
Saturday & Sunday, June 26-27 Pocono Doubleheader
Sunday, July 4 Road America
Sunday, July 11 Atlanta
Sunday, July 18 New Hampshire
Sunday, August 8 Watkins Glen
Sunday, August 15 Indianapolis Road Course
Sunday, August 22 Michigan
Saturday, August 28 Daytona
Sunday, September 5 Darlington
Saturday, September 11 Richmond
Saturday, September 18 Bristol
Sunday, September 26 Las Vegas
Sunday, October 3 Talladega
Sunday, October 10 Charlotte Roval
Sunday, October 17 Texas
Sunday, October 24 Kansas
Sunday, October 31 Martinsville
Sunday, November 7 Phoenix
  • Races in bold are playoff races