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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)

Austin Dillon’s connection with Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey

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Austin Dillon had no inside knowledge of the Charlotte Panthers’ plans before the 2017 NFL draft.

But he somehow knew he would be making a future connection with Christian McCaffery.

“I hit him up when he was at Stamford because I was a fan watching him run these crazy 100-yard runs that no one could tackle him,” Dillon said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Getting close to the NFL draft time, I hit him up on DM (direct message) and said, ‘Hey man, I think you’re going to get drafted by the Panthers. I feel it.’ ”

The Panthers took the running back with the eighth pick, and Dillon immediately rolled out the red carpet.

“I told him ‘Dude, you’re coming here, you don’t know anybody. When you get here, hit me up, we’ll hang out,’” Dillon said on the podcast. “I got his number, and we started texting.”

Christian McCaffrey carries the ball for the Carolina Panthers during their Dec. 30 game against New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As McCaffrey adjusted to the rigors of being an NFL rookie, he and Dillon didn’t spend much time together until after the ’17 season. McCaffrey and several other Panthers players came to the All-Star Race last year. “That was the first time we met,” Dillon said. “He had a blast, hung out with us, saw the All-Star Race, and afterward, he was ready to beat Jamie McMurray up. He said the 1 car was in my way. I said, ‘Man, it’s just racing all good.’ ”

Dillon and McCaffrey since have hung out more often and now share the same hair stylist.

McCaffrey is planning to be at Daytona International Speedway this weekend to attend his second Cup race, watching as Dillon attempts to repeat as the Daytona 500 champion.

“That’s going to be cool,” Dillon said. “Yeah, I’m glad he’s going to come enjoy that in his offseason. He’s so strict about what he does during the season and the offseason, he’s just a legend when it comes to training and taking care of his body, diet. He’s really serious. If you can get him to slip out, it’s once in a lifetime because he’s so focused on his craft.”

McCaffrey’s training regimen has inspired Dillon to change his diet and get fit.

“We went to dinner, and they chose this spot in downtown Charlotte, all organic stuff,” Dillon said. “He talked about things he doesn’t eat. I was doing that a couple of years ago and stopped. I was eating right. No bread, no cheese before. But (McCaffrey) takes it to another level with certain things. I’m going to learn more from him this year. Might stop out in Colorado to talk about his diet and the people he uses.”

During the podcast, Dillon also discusses:

–His relationship with crew chief Danny Stockman, who taught him many lessons about racing in winning Xfinity and truck championships. The pair are being reunited in Cup this season;

–Why he thinks the 2019 rules package will benefit him;

–His enthusiasm about NASCAR’s foray into eSports;

–His unique perspective on how young drivers and veterans view racing ethics differently.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking above or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play and wherever you download podcasts.

Podcast: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s favorite memories of racing Rolex 24 with his father

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When Dale Earnhardt came to Daytona under different circumstances, the preparation remained the same for shepherding the seven-time champion with an enormous fan base.

Corvette Racing manager Doug Fehan recalled arranging security for Earnhardt and his son for getting to and from their motorhomes while they raced the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. It turned out to be mostly unnecessary as they drew large packs of respectful fans but without a mob scene.

“They were very respectful,” Fehan recalled during the second half of a two-part NASCAR on NBC Podcast about the Earnhardts racing the 2001 Rolex. “It was amazing to see.”

ROLEX 24 COVERAGE: Full announcer lineup, NBCSN/NBC Sports App schedule

Earnhardt was moved by it enough to remark about the sports car atmosphere while having lunch with Fehan.

“(Earnhardt) said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Fehan said. “‘This has been one of the most rewarding experiences in racing seeing this.’ I said, ‘I want you to enjoy it.’ It’s what racing can be when you’re not running for a million dollars a race. When you put big money on it, it wouldn’t be like this. This is a family. Every team in this paddock is in the same boat paddling. We just have a different oar.

“He loved it. He liked the whole experience. He loved that form of racing. Which led to further conversations about wanting to (race the 24 Hours of) Le Mans. Going to Le Mans was going to be like the pinnacle for him.”

It might have been the first of many post-NASCAR excursions in racing for The Intimidator, who was killed in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 two weeks after the Rolex 24.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. discusses his 2001 Rolex 24 run during a recent interview. The replica street model of the car is behind him (NBC Sports).

“When I think about (the 2001 Rolex 24), sometimes I think about that, and sometimes I don’t,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “I just appreciate that we got to do that, before he was taken away from us. Because that was probably one of the first dominoes in a series of things that he might have wanted to do outside this life as a race car driver in NASCAR.

“He may have had other unique things that he had to check off his list. And that was probably the first one because I was real surprised when he came up with the idea to even do it. I didn’t think he was the type of guy who would do these extracurricular things outside of his immense responsibilities. He was a busy, busy man.”

Earnahrdt Jr. said he was “absolutely, 100% sure” that his father would have run Le Mans. Fehan said the logistics already were being formulated for getting Earnhardt to France, and Corvette Racing had a spot in one of its cars.

“We worked out how to fit scheduling for testing and travel,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to say it was 90 percent of the way there, but everybody agreed on doing this. We had the framework and the foundation pretty solidified.

“It was his dream. He was only going to run one more year of Cup. Then he saw himself to be able to compete a number of years. Not just a Le Mans race. He wanted to do more sports car racing.”

After Earnhardt’s death, Corvette honored the NASCAR Hall of Famer with special stripes on its car for a few years. Earnhardt Jr. ran a black-themed bumper on his No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports as a tribute to the Rolex 24, where the No. 3 Corvette finished second in class and fourth overall.

Earnhardt Jr. also has a street model replica of the No. 3 Corvette. His father was supposed to have a matching version.

“It means more to me now than I ever thought it,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the car. “When we decided to have these cars made, I didn’t know Dad was going to be taken from us just a short time later. It took a while for these cars to get built. The wing on my car came from the second place-finishing Corvette at Le Mans that year. The wing on Dad’s car came from the winning car.

“Dad didn’t want his wing painted. He wanted all the rubber and debris from the race still on the wing. I wanted mine to be painted because I wanted it to match (and) I wanted to drive around town. I wasn’t even thinking or I’d have left it alone. That’s why Dad was so smart! He left his wing dirty.”

Dale Earnhardt makes a lap during the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. (Jon Ferrey/Allsport)

Earnhardt Jr. drove the car for several years but doesn’t anymore after replacing the splitter (“because it’s so low to the ground, I don’t want to hurt it”) and re-decaling.

“This is a bit of a symbolic piece for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Something that we did together at the end of his life.

“I only have a handful of cars to my name, and there’s only one or two that I will never ever get rid of, and this is one of them. I’ll always have this.”

Also in the podcast:

–Earnhardt Jr. discusses whether he will return to the Rolex 24 (“The door is always open to run that race again. I’d never run full time. Never want to really run Le Mans. But the Daytona 24 Hours race having done it before makes it very special to me. The cars are so much fun.”);

–The lasting bonds and friendships formed by the Earnhardts during the Rolex 24;

–How each of them performed during the race.

You can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher or Spotify or by clicking on the embed below.

Click here for information on watching NBC Sports Group’s coverage of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona this weekend.

Podcast: The Earnhardts race the Rolex 24 … recalling one of the last rides for ‘The Intimidator’

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Their first spins around Sebring International Raceway in sports cars were a little too literal for Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

There were some lucrative silver linings from a crash course in learning how to race a Corvette, though.

In preparing for the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Earnhardts went to Sebring to learn the nuances of driving a GT car, which have more sophisticated cockpit technology and precision braking and handling than the stock cars of which they were accustomed.

Within his first 15 minutes on track, Earnhardt Jr. had crumpled the back end of the Corvette. Late in the day, his father joined him

ROLEX 24 COVERAGE: Full announcer lineup, NBCSN/NBC Sports App schedule

“We got a pile of parts sitting there from both of them crashing,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan said in a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast (links below). “Dale says, ‘This isn’t really the way we wanted to start.’ I said, ‘I think it was inevitable. End of the day, I’m not sure it wasn’t a good way to start because you both have learned the limits of the car.”

Earnhardt told Fehan he still felt bad about the expense and trouble for the team. Fehan pointed at the pile of parts.

“Don’t worry, you and Junior are going to sign all those, and we’re going to sell them,” Fehan said. “We’re going to get the money back.”

The Earnhardts then grabbed Sharpies and headed to the scrap heap.

Beyond making the best of it with their autographs, Earnhardt Jr. said crashing early “probably was a good thing” in getting acclimated to the Corvettes.

“I’m the guy that everyone looks at and thinks, ‘Man, he’s probably the weakest link,’ ” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “So I put a ton of pressure on myself right out of the gate to be very fast.

“I mashed the gas, and it just spun out. It had so much power, you could just spin that thing out so easily just by touching the throttle pedal. I backed into a bridge abutment. I thought I had killed this race car.”

Dale Earnhardt makes a lap during the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. (Jon Ferrey/Allsport)

Once the car was back in the garage, though, the Corvette team unzipped some large black bags and had the rear end replaced in about 20 minutes.

“‘OK, get back in!’” Earnhardt Jr. recalled the team saying. “I tore this thing to hell, and you’re going to fix it with new stuff and want me to get back in it! You’re not going to let me take a couple of hours to think about what I did, send someone else out there. ‘No! Get back in, you’ve got to learn!’

“I got back in and took a little better care of it the rest of the day.”

It was near the end of the session when his father lost control on a fresh set of tires, and Earnhardt Jr. believes he was partly responsible.

“Dad’s out there, I’m way faster than him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m like, ‘Dad, look at me, doing good!’ and he’s like, ‘It’s not important how fast we’re going. We ain’t even racing here. I don’t know what the big deal is.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’

“Well right at the end of the day, I think it was eating away at him a little bit. He wouldn’t admit it. It’s 5 o’clock. It’s time to stop. He’s like, ‘Put me some tires on this!’ One last run, he goes out and is running a lap by the flagstand to start his run. He nosed the car into the tire barrier head first in the last corner.

“I knew he was pushing as hard as he could to match or better my time. So there was some competition between us two that I think he would never admit to. Because I’d be like, not ‘I’m better than you,’ but ‘Look at what I’m doing! Isn’t this cool?’ He’d be like, ‘We don’t even race at Sebring. We race at Daytona! I don’t know why you’re pushing so hard, you’re going to tear it up.’ We had two completely different approaches.”

But there was much common ground for a duo that didn’t always spend much time together at the track. When Earnhardt Jr. was up and coming in Late Models, his father rarely attended his short-track races. They competed together for only one season together in Cup but on separate teams.

The Rolex 24 provided a unique opportunity to work together on a full-time basis.

“This is the closest I’ve ever been to him to be able to do that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Usually we’re racing on the racetrack and against each other. He might not even see me all day or know what I’m doing. Here we are together, debriefing and talking about the car and changing things on the car together.

“This is a really great opportunity for me to show him just what I thought about race cars and how I communicated.”

Listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast to hear more stories about the Earnhardts’ run in the 2001 Rolex 24, including:

–How Dale Earnhardt grew close with the Corvette Racing team (“He said I want to be treated like any other guy on this team,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to be treated as Dale Earnhardt. I’m just a driver like anyone else on this race team. Coming from anyone else, I would have thought it was BS. Coming from him, it was genuine. He was serious about it.”)

–The welcoming reception he received in the sports car community (“Dad had a lot of respect for people all across all forms of motorsports. He sort of crossed those lines and boundaries. So I think everybody was like, ‘This is great!’ They weren’t intimated by him from a competitors’ standpoint. He didn’t act like, ‘Boy I’m going to light the world and show you guys. I’m Dale Earnhardt, move out of the way and give me my space.’ He just came in there inquisitive, asking all the right questions. Easy to approach, and people just liked it, man.”

–Why Earnhardt initially believed the team didn’t necessarily need a fourth driver, and the Daytona test that told him otherwise.

You can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher or Spotify or by clicking on the embed below.

Part II of this special narrative edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast will be released early Thursday morning.

Long: Rivalry NASCAR needs but fans might have to wait to see

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The rivalry NASCAR needs most won’t take place until 2020. At the earliest.

Until then, fans will have to enjoy the limited times Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell race each other in midget cars. That might be it because their NASCAR schedules may not intersect much this year.

Bell, who won a rookie record seven Xfinity Series races last year, returns for a second season even though he said in August he was ready for CupLarson enters his sixth season in Cup. The only way they will race each other in NASCAR this year will be if Toyota runs Bell in some Cup races or Larson finds a ride for select Xfinity races. Nothing has been announced for either at this point.

If they don’t compete in the same NASCAR race this year, fans will lose. This is among the best rivalries in motorsports and is one fueled not by hate but by competition.

Saturday night’s Chili Bowl Nationals added to a growing list of Larson-Bell duels that have become must-see viewing in recent months.

“These guys race each other, but they know how to race each other,’’ said Keith Kunz, whose midget car team has won the past five Chili Bowl Nationals, including the last three with Bell. “You watch all the races for the last three or four years, they expect the slide job, they see it coming, they know how to cross over and counter maneuver. They do things that I don’t think any of us have seen anybody do in a long time between the two of them.”

That makes for edge-of-the-seat viewing when Bell and Larson race together. Just like this past weekend.

Bell passed Larson on the final lap after contact between them to win his third consecutive Chili Bowl title. Afterward, Larson lamented how he let Bell chase him down but said he was “more upset” with the contact he made with Bell in Turn 3 when trying to reclaim the lead.

“I try to pride myself and not race like that and that’s twice now that I’ve done that on the last lap,” Larson said. “Just a little desperation out of myself. Got to not do that in the future.”

Larson made contact with Bell on the last lap of the Turkey Night Grand Prix midget race in November at Ventura (California) Raceway. Bell took the lead with 12 laps to go. Larson challenged Bell but couldn’t get by on the final lap. 

And in August at Bristol, Larson and Bell dueled in the Xfinity race. With less than 50 laps to go, Bell hounded Larson for the lead while they ran through lapped traffic. During a caution that interrupted the battle, Bell radioed crew chief Jason Ratcliff and said: “This is pretty fun right here.” Ratcliff responded: “Looks like it.”

Larson won that race and Bell finished second. Larson won four of his six Xfinity starts last year. Bell finished second twice in those races and third another time. 

Both Larson and Bell were excited after Bristol about racing each other for the lead in a NASCAR event.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for that – me and Kyle to race,” Bell said that day. “It seems like whenever we’re dirt racing, we’re racing each other a lot, but we haven’t really got to race each other on pavement yet. It was really fun to be able to race really hard with him.”

Larson said after the Bristol win that he looked forward to competing against Bell for more NASCAR wins.

“It’s been the Kyle (Busch) and Kyle show at a lot of places,” Larson said, “but with Chris’ driving style and mine, I think it’s going to be the Kyle, Kyle and Chris show at a lot of these places, especially Bristol for a long time. I’m excited for him to get his Cup opportunity whenever that may arise.”

When Bell gets a full-time Cup ride will be among the key stories this season. Joe Gibbs Racing enters this year with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones. Provided that lineup remains the same for 2020, then Bell could go to Leavine Family Racing, which switched to Toyota after last year, and is aligned with JGR.

The key for Toyota is to not lose Bell as it lost Larson. With no place to put Larson, Toyota saw the talented open-wheel racer sign with a Chevrolet Xfinity team for the 2013 season, leading Larson to a Cup ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014.

When Bell reaches Cup, he and Larson could provide NASCAR fans with thrills for years.

“Me and Kyle were talking about this the other day,” Bell said on a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It’s kind of weird. It seems like if Kyle and I are in the same race together we seem to elevate each other. Kyle has been my No. 1 supporter and it all started at Little Rock, Arkansas, at the Short Track Nationals back in, I think, 2012. … That was my first time I got on the national scene and Kyle was on Twitter saying this kid’s the next big thing. Basically since day one, Kyle has been trying to promote me and telling people I’m good and stuff like that.”

While there are others in Cup and Xfinity who raise each other’s level when they race one another, there hasn’t been that rivalry — friendly or not — that has been consistent. Even last year when Kevin Harvick, Busch and Truex Jr. dominated, there were few times they battled each other for wins late in a race. 

Bell and Larson often seem to find each other at the front when they race together.

It’s just a matter of getting them in the same NASCAR races this season because 2020 is too long to wait to watch these two duel for the win.