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).

Aric Almirola leaves New Hampshire frustrated after third-place finish

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LOUDON, N.H. — Aric Almirola’s first top-five finish of the season was greeted a forced smile.

After leading 42 laps and feeling he “had the best car hands down,” a slow pit stop and a poor restart prevented Almirola from ending his 138-race winless streak Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he had to settle for a third-place finish

“You would think I’d be really excited to run top five and I’m not,” Almirola said. “We had the best car hands-down. There’s no doubt in my mind. We gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart. I spun the tires on the restart and didn’t even give myself a fighting chance, so I’m just really frustrated.”

It continues Almirola’s season of near misses.

He was about a mile from winning the Daytona 500 when a bump from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall.

Last month at Chicagoland Speedway, Almirola was fast, leading 70 laps but two loose wheels doomed him to a 25th-place finish.

Sunday, Almirola was leading with less than 45 laps to go. A caution on Lap 258 brought the field to pit road and Almirola lost the lead. He exited pit road third.

“It’s just frustrating,” Almirola said. “They say you’ve got to lose some before you win some and I feel like we’ve lost some now and it’s time to stop it and go to Victory Lane.”

On the restart, Almirola spun his tires and was seventh before he got back around the track, losing four spots.

“Kyle (Busch) just went a lot sooner in the restart zone than I anticipated,” Almirola said. “I was trying to roll up to the restart zone. When he took off, I kind of pushed the throttle down and spun the tires and didn’t get a good start.”

What drivers said after New Hampshire

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Kevin Harvick — Winner: “I just didn’t know if I was gonna get there at the end and I felt like that was my best opportunity to do what I had to do to win. I didn’t want to wreck him, but I didn’t want to waste a bunch of time behind him. I just got to thank everybody on this No. 4.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 2nd: “You know, it’s racing. We had a really, really poor performance today. Our Interstate Batteries Camry just wasn’t there – it wasn’t there all weekend. We kept fighting the same things all weekend long and we never make any gains on it all through practice and we kind of struggled with it through the race and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) made some really, really good calls – some really good adjustments to just try to keep improving on it. My pit crew was flawless. They gained us all those spots on pit road to get us out front to get us in that position – to have a shot to go after the win – and, you know, we controlled the restart and drove away by a little bit, but we weren’t the best car on the long run. All them SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars were really, really good today. They were all fast, so it was going to be hard to hold them off and I was just kind of backing up and, you know, three, four, five corners in a row and with a faster car, I’m not sure he (Kevin Harvick) had to do it, but he did. It’s fine. How you race is how you get raced, so it’s fine.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 3rd: “You’d think I’d be more excited to run top five – and I’m not. We had the best car, hands down. There’s no doubt in my mind. And we gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart – spun the tires. Didn’t even give myself a fighting chance.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 4th: “We were fast early. Just VHT wore off and I was no good anymore. A couple guys – specifically the SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars – man, they got rolling there about midway through the race and we just pretty much crapped, so couldn’t ever fix it and we had one set of tires that was funny and on that one run there it was wheel hoping real bad, I just – I couldn’t hang onto it, so we lost some spots there, but pit crew kept us in the game. We had a good stop there at the end that gave us a shot. We just didn’t have the speed there after a few laps. We tried hard, but we just can’t quite figure out the second half of this thing, but when we do we’re going to be in good shape.

Chase Elliott — Finished 5th: “I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good. Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing. I’m proud of the effort. I appreciate everybody’s effort back at Hendrick and the chassis shop and engine shop and Chevrolet and all the folks that are working hard to try to get better. We took a step in the right direction.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 6th: “Yeah, it was a good rebound from yesterday. The entire weekend they definitely stepped it up. It was a good run for our Chevy Accessories Chevy Camaro. The guys did a good job in the pits today, that was nice to see, we have been struggling a little bit there. Just proud of everybody. Not the end result that we want, but a huge improvement and that is something we want. We will keep digging.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “It was a challenging day for our Menards/Sylvania Ford Fusion team. We had good speed early, but needed to make sure adjustments to have a chance at the win. We had two things not go our way on pit road, but we fought back for a solid finish.”

Joey Logano — Finished 9th: “We struggled today. We had okay fire-off speed but overall, our Shell-Pennzoil Ford just fell off too early in the run. I fought loose most of the day with a car tucked in behind me on corner entry and at times it was too tight in the center. We got a couple of stage points and a top-10 finish, but we need to get faster now that we’re closing in on the playoffs.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 10th: “I think top 10 is where we need to be. Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 11th: “We really struggled. We were 10 out of 10 plowing tight, had the track bar maxed out all the way up, all the rear brake I could stand and doing everything I could to try to get the thing to turn, it just wasn’t going to turn. Hate it. I hate that we unloaded with so much speed and just kind of I guess didn’t go the right way or the track changed on us, but really proud of Greg (Ives, crew chief) and everybody for getting the car better there at the end. Had a good restart there and almost got a top 10. It could have been a lot worse.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 13th: “No doubt. Yeah, I mean, there’s several different approaches, several different things I tried to do inside the car to get the front to turn. Just would not turn. Does it for a couple laps in open track, but once I get in traffic it just plows through the front – touch the gas and it plows through. I can’t keep it one lane, so it’s a struggle with balance. I think our cars have speed, we just have to get our – do the best to get our setup on there that we can be aggressive with.”

William Byron — Finished 14th: “Yeah, I mean it was okay. I thought at the beginning of the race we kind of just got really loose in (to turns) which made it really hard for us to hold position. And then I felt like once we got that back out of it we just had that one weak run and once we got that back out of it we were pretty good again. Just kind of missed it that one run and hard to make up track position after that.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 21st: “The Dow Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was loose on entry to start the race, but a pit stop for four tires, fuel and adjustments definitely improved the car’s handling. We kept up with changing track conditions through adjustments in the pits throughout the race, and ended up with a pretty good handling Camaro ZL1. We were posting top-10 lap times during most of the race and running in eighth when we ended up with a loose wheel and had to make an unscheduled pit stop under green flag conditions. It cost us the lead lap. It’s a shame because we had a rocket ship but couldn’t do anything with it. I’m proud of the guys for building a really fast car. We are on the right track.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 23rd: “This GEICO Camaro ZL1 was incredibly fast today. It was one of the best pieces that we have brought to the racetrack all year. I hate that my restart violation at the start of Stage 2 put us behind. My crew chief made every strategy call that he could to keep us in the game and get laps back, but we never could get back ahead. I have no doubt that this was a top 10 car, and I’m disappointed that we couldn’t show everyone that. But, we’re still only halfway through the season with a lot of racing left. We can’t and won’t let ourselves get down. We will put one of these races together from start to finish here soon.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 32nd: “We had a disappointing day for sure. I don’t know if I used too much brake trying to keep up or what. We’ll go on to Pocono and try to get a win there next week.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 35th: “It just sucks. First and foremost, I hate that for my teammate. It was his first win and he was dominating the race. I was trying to nurse it around. Something in the left-rear was broke and no more than Brett (Griffin, spotter) told me, ‘we’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 36th: “I think Ryan Newman got into the side of me pretty early at the start of the race. I was kind of nervous about it there was no smoke in the car though, so I thought we were okay. And then we went back green and, on the restart, it just felt like the car was moving around a lot and down the front straightaway I felt it go. I tried everything I could do to slow the car down to get it stopped, but there was nothing I could do. Usually when you hit here you hit big and just disappointed. We have had a rough few weeks. Obviously, Daytona was okay, but other than that is has been a rough few weeks.”

Chase Elliott ‘shocked’ with New Hampshire top five

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After the end of a long, wet day, Chase Elliott was “shocked” with how he fared in Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed fifth, earning his first top five and top 10 on the 1.058-mile track in five starts.

That was after Elliott claimed his first stage win of the season, winning Stage 2 over Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Elliott, who started 10th and finished Stage 1 in second, led a season-high 23 laps after passing Truex for the lead on Lap 132.

In the previous 19 races Elliott had led only 19 laps.

“I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good,” Elliott said. “Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing.”

The top five is the first for Hendrick Motorsports since Elliott placed fourth at Sonoma Raceway four races ago. Before that, Jimmie Johnson had the most recent top five in the Coke 600 in May.

“I’m proud of the effort,” Elliott said. “It was a huge points day for us. Obviously, we’d love that win to not have to worry about it. But, we got 19 points between the two stages, that’s 19 positions on-track, and that’s a lot. Anything can happen in these next few weeks and to have all you can get is really important.”

Through 20 races Elliott has five top fives and nine top 10s.

Elliott leaves New Hampshire 13th in standings, two points behind Johnson.

Johnson ran in the top five late in the first stage after he, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth did not pit during the competition caution that waved on Lap 35 (since they had stopped earlier).

Johnson placed third in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2 before finishing in 10th. It’s his first top 10 in six races and the first time Hendrick has had two drivers in the top 10 since Sonoma.

“I think top 10 is where we need to be,” Johnson said. “Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Kyle Busch on contact from Kevin Harvick: ‘How you race is how you get raced’

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LOUDON, N.H. — Kevin Harvick didn’t want to wait. Kyle Busch won’t forget.

Harvick’s bump-and-run of Busch with seven laps left Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway spiced what has the potential to be quite a duel between the two the rest of the season.

“How you race is how you get raced,” Busch said after his runner-up finish to Harvick.

Busch said he felt Harvick didn’t need to be as physical when he was.

“He did that because of Chicago,” Busch said, alluding to the beating and banging Busch and Kyle Larson had on the last lap of that race. “Everybody has fair game on Kyle Busch that’s for sure when it comes to the fanbase. That’s fine. That’s how they want to race, that’s how I’ll race back.

“It’s just a bump. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder and pushed me out of the groove three lanes and it just takes you so long to recover here that there was no possible way I could get back to him and I was slower anyways so I was in the way. So no harm no foul.”

But Busch won’t forget.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect that but you also think that you a guy is going to race you fair and clean first,” Busch said. “I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there. He just kept hitting me in the rear bumper each and every time it was getting increasingly harder.”

Harvick never intended to wait so long.

“I figured that’s exactly what he was thinking,” he said of Busch. “I knew I needed to take the opportunity as early as I could get it because I knew that he was thinking late and needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it.

“The more opportunities to get into his wheelhouse, in his thought process, the less chance that you have. He’s that good. If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position to not get hit and he’s going to go on defense and really start to be aggressive. I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

Is he worried about how Busch could race him the rest of the regular season and the playoffs?

“You do and you worry about that stuff later,” Harvick said. “It’s not like I wrecked him. It’s the same thing as Chicago.”

Harvick said one has to do all they can to win races, especially against another playoff foe. The victory allowed Harvick to gain five playoff points and kept Busch from collecting those.

“These races are hard to win,” Harvick said. “When you’re in position, it’s one of those things that you have to do what you have to do for your team. You want to do everything you can to not spin him out and not wreck him and just make it as clean as possible and try to accomplish the bump and run. Today we were able to accomplish it well and win the race.”

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