Podcast: Austin Dillon on last year’s Daytona 500 finish, learning driver ethics from Tony Stewart

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It’s been a year since Austin Dillon made contact with and wrecked Aric Almirola on the last lap of the Daytona 500, clearing the way for his win in the “Great American Race.”

With the 2019 season beginning Sunday with the Daytona 500, the defending race winner sat down with the NASCAR on NBC podcast. Among the topics the Richard Childress Racing driver discussed were the fallout from that last-lap incident and how his driver code was shaped by the previous generation of drivers.

Dillon was impressed by how Almirola handled losing his shot at a win after the contact while racing for the lead.

“You lose the biggest race of the year, and he acted amazing,” Dillon said. “He handled it how you’re supposed to. I feel like I would handle it, understand it, but I don’t know if my emotions would be able to be held like his were together. So that was impressive I thought from him from that standpoint. He handled that really well. But I do feel like he knows that I didn’t just turn him. I made a move left, he did a pretty good job blocking, and I just went right. And when I went right, it hooked him.”

Dillon is in a unique position entering his sixth full-time season on the Cup circuit.

The 28-year-old driver has been around long enough to claim to have raced against Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, pillars of the generation of Cup drivers that preceded him.

Dillon discussed how Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, opened his eyes to the drivers ethics of the old guard and how they viewed hard racing.

Dillon’s Stewart-taught lesson came at Indianapolis one year, a week after Dillon held him up for a few laps in a race at Kentucky Speedway.

“I had a fast car,” Dillon said. “I’m running down Tony, and Indy is one of those places you can make it hell on somebody if you want to and your car is good in that certain area. Tony held me up for probably a full stint. Like a full fuel run. I could not get by him. I about hit the wall. I was so frustrated. After the race, he came by and said ‘Hey, I know you had the faster car and I could have let you go, but you know that was for last week, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah man, whatever.’

“That’s kind of what the older guy mentality was. ‘We’re not going to race hard when the other guy is faster. You’re not going to do that.’ I kind of had to morph into that.”

Dillon said there’s “two different transitions going on” now with younger drivers entering Cup set on, “We’re going to race the (expletive) out of each other from Lap 1.”

“I was in a good transition period to understand … why certain people race that way,” Dillon said. “In Xfinity I raced hard every lap and then I got to the Cup Series and then I was like, ‘This is different.’ You got to learn how to do it. More guys are coming in now that just race hard, and I think everybody is starting to adapt to everybody just racing a lot harder.”

You can listen to the full episode below.

Other highlights:

— How Dillon became a good friend of Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who will attend the Daytona 500 as a guest of Dillon’s (10:00)

—  Why Dillon believes the 2019 rules package will play into his hands (15:00)

—  The advice of Shaquille O’Neal on the Harley J. Earl trophy (20:00)