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Dillon, Childress Have 3 Reasons To Celebrate Victory In The 600

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 29 2017

Austin Dillon pulled the No. 3 Chevrolet into Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (RacinToady/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

CONCORD, N.C. – In the early morning hours of Monday on Memorial Day weekend, Austin Dillon silenced his critics.

The eldest grandson of team owner Richard Childress became the seventh driver to claim his first-ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 – stock car racing’s longest race – and the 10th overall to garner his first career win at the 1.5-mile track.

Dillon’s 0.835-second victory over Kyle Busch concluded an historical day in motorsports. It began with Ferrari winning the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time in 16 years. NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas had his second year, two-car Formula One team place both entries in the top 10 for the first time. Next, Takuma Sato became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500. Finally, Dillon not only recorded his first career Cup win, he returned the RCR No. 3 Chevrolet to a Cup race victory lane for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s final win in October 2000 at Talladega.

“When I looked up and seen the 3 on top of the board, I was standing there doing an interview; that’s when I got emotional,” Childress said. “It’s so special to see that 3 in the winner’s circle again. I know Dale is up there smiling down because he would want this win. He’d want to see it with Austin.

“Nothing will ever replace Dale Earnhardt and the things he accomplished in his race car. All we wanted to do was go out and carry it on for the race fans that love to see that 3 and the Dale Earnhardt fans.”

Childress, who adopted the No. 3 as his number in the mid-1970s after team owner Ray

Team owner Richard Childress greets his winning driver. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Fox relinquished it, said he always planned to bring the number back after Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.`However, it needed to be with family. Dillon had used his grandfather’s car number on his baseball uniform. He adopted it for his Bandolero and as he progressed on all of his race cars. He carried it into the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series. But when he made his debut with the No. 3 in the Cup Series it drew a mixed reaction from fans. Most were happy to once again see the number on the track, but there were those who didn’t feel Dillon deserved to be in the number made famous by Earnhardt.

“I think it shows that he deserved to be in the 3,” Childress said about Dillon’s victory.  “I was just not going to put anyone in it; had to have been one of the Childress family or one of the Earnhardts.”

Dillon noted “there’s always haters out there” but “there’s a lot of support, too.”

“I’m just glad to add to the legacy of it (No. 3),” Dillon said. “The best guys have been hated in this sport, truthfully. If people don’t like you, you’re still doing something right, I feel like, because there’s just as many that do. If they say it was a fuel mileage race, they can kiss my ring.”
The 27-year-old Dillon’s victory gave him membership in an elite club –those who first visited the winner’s circle in NASCAR’s premier series in the Coca-Cola 600. NASCAR Hall of famer and three-time champion David Pearson became the first in 1961. Thirty-three years later in 1994 four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon added his name to the list. NASCAR champions Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth were next in 1995 and 2000, respectively. The other two were Casey Mears in 2007 and David Reutimann in 2009.  

“I did know a lot of winners come from the Coke 600 for the first time. I talked about it today in an interview,” a jubilant Dillon said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re the small team out there trying to get everything we can. Tonight … when it came down to it, we had everything we needed.

“In my car, (my fiancée) Whitney always writes a verse before the race. It said, ‘If you put God first, He can take you places you never imagined.’ I wouldn’t have imagined being at my home track in victory lane tonight.”

Dillon secured his surprise victory thanks to a late race fuel gamble by crew chief Justin Alexander, who assumed the position a week before the event. Dillon ran in the top 10 throughout the race. When drivers in front of him began making their final pit stops with less than 50 laps remaining, Alexander told him to remain on the track.

“We were 2.7 laps short; just right in that window where you have the option to stretch it, but there’s a risk with that,” Alexander said. “You give up a little track position early on trying to stretch it on fuel. We got good fuel mileage all day. It really didn’t make much sense to do anything but that.”

When leader Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth pitted with 32 laps remaining in the 400-lap race, Jimmie Johnson and Dillon moved into first and second, respectively.  Johnson’s advantage over Dillon stood at 3.298 seconds with 20 laps remaining, but Johnson knew his fuel mileage was about a lap shy of the finish. Sure enough, with two laps remaining Johnson’s Chevrolet slowed for lack of fuel and Dillon took the lead.

“When I saw him run out (of gas) off of (turn) two, it was back to conserve mode on fuel, which is scary, because you can think about pushing it harder and just coasting to the line ‘cause there’s only two to go,”  Dillon said. “I just tried to stay as smooth as I could. That actually kind of took some pressure off me when he ran out. 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.”  

Dillon and his crew celebrated the victory by executing Dillon’s belly slide in the frontstretch apron’s grass, still wet from the torrential rain that halted the event for 1 hour 39 minutes 56 seconds after 144 laps. Dillon, who imitated retired professional wrestler Ric Flair with a “Woo!” as he entered the media center, led only the final two laps in the race that had 23 lead changes among 10 drivers. The second RCR victory this season now gives the veteran team that has struggled in recent years two drivers in the playoffs. Ryan Newman won at Phoenix earlier this year.

“I was jealous of Newman getting the first win,” Dillon said. “I’ve been buddying up to him lately, really talking to him, picking his brain. He’s a really smart guy. I talked to him this week on the phone, just kind of talking and trying to get ourselves better together.”

Childress noted the new car Dillon drove to victory was a “step up” from the others in the RCR stable.

“I think if we keep improving like we did with this car, some of the things I know (competition director vice president) Eric (Warren) and his group are working on, I think we can show a different company when it comes to going into the Chase (playoffs),” Childress said.

The Las Vegas odds makers may have placed Dillon’s victory chances at 100-to-1, but driving chassis number 600 with the No. 3 on it at his and Earnhardt’s home track, where Earnhardt won five Cup races, showed the numbers actually were in Dillon’s favor.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 29 2017
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Steven says:

    It’s always nice to see a new winner but “silenced his critics”? Even Danica has won a gas milage race. Just riding around and saving gas isn’t very impressive.