In one of the most prestigious races in NASCAR, Austin Dillon stretched his fuel tank for the last 70 laps to win the Coca-Cola 600 and get his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win. Being at the home of almost every Cup team as well as being the longest race in NASCAR, Dillon picked a fine time to get his first win.
But Dillon would need to utilize some strategy in order to get into victory lane. After being toward the back half of the top 10 most of the night, the team decided to save fuel after their final pit stop and utilize strategy to leapfrog those who had been dominating like Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. and get the win. A few played the fuel mileage game like Dillon and after leader Jimmie Johnson ran out with a lap and a half to go, Dillon was the last man standing. Dillon saved just enough and ran out of fuel as he crossed the start/finish line to beat the hard charging Busch and Truex by a couple seconds.
It was such a popular win throughout the sport because Dillon had brought the legendary #3 to victory lane for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s final victory in 2000. The number itself has been affiliated with NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Richard Childress since 1976. After Earnhardt’s death in 2001, Childress kept the #3 as an unofficial “retired” number and nobody had driven with that number.
When Dillon started moving up through the racing ranks, he asked his grandfather to bring back the legendary number and the number he had been personified with all his life. After 13 years, Childress brought back the number to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series when Dillon started racing in the series full time. And in his 133rd race, Dillon came full circle and got that legendary number back into victory lane.
Austin Dillon spoke with The Comeback about his first win, his new crew chief Justin Alexander, the importance of winning in the #3 and talk a bit about his favorite NFL team, the Carolina Panthers.
Phillip Bupp: Now did you and the team do a fuel saving run in practice beforehand or did you all decide to go for it when the situation presented itself?
Austin Dillon: We actually didn’t do any practice with fuel mileage. It was pretty much just calculate it right and that trust was there between Justin and I and the entire team that we could do our job and figure it out.
PB: I hear this all the time, a crew chief telling a driver to save fuel but pass cars and go as fast as you can. How exactly does a driver do that?
Dillon: It’s just kind of, it takes a lot of focus and the spotter has to do a good job of telling you what’s going on. Kind of playing the race out in your mind so you know how much you can give up, lap times around you and who are the guys that are important that you’re racing, who are the guys we’re not racing.
When guys come on [new] tires, you have to stay focused on what you’re doing, not let them screw up your race and we were able to do that. We were able to stay focused throughout the entire process of that entire long run and guys were coming hard but we were just smart enough to run the pace we needed to run and run out of fuel at the exact point we figured which was on the start/finish line.
PB: And you had to deal with Jimmie Johnson because he was on the same strategy as you. So I imagine trying to race him, save fuel, knowing you got Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. behind coming up at full speed, that the last few laps were probably a little nerve racking.
Dillon: Yeah, well, the truth to that is I wasn’t much worried about the Martin Truex/Kyle Busch deal because if that happened [catching up and passing], I mean there was nothing that we were going to be able to do to kind of stop that. The biggest one I was worried about was Johnson and kind of watching him in front of us as he was backing up. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t push too hard, too early to make us run out of fuel and make it.
So we waited as long as possible. The corner [Johnson] ran out, I had been kind of released to go and went into [turn] 1, made up a bunch of ground. Then off of [turn] 2, he ran out and then I went back into a fuel saving mode. That’s how it kind of all played out, it was cool.
PB: You mentioned your crew chief, Justin Alexander. He’s new to working with you in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series but he’s been with RCR for at least a few years so he’s not exactly new to the team. What has Justin brought to the team and to you personally that will help you in the coming weeks and months?
Dillon: Well, [Justin] brings a calmness among the guys. [In the race] he never really got amped the entire time. I mean, I didn’t even hear him through that entire [fuel] run but got to hear some of his communication with our spotter, Andy Houston. And you can just hear through his voice that it was more about the work that was ahead of us than nervousness or anxiousness so that was pretty cool.
PB: You mentioned in your postrace interview that you and your grandfather/car owner Richard Childress got into a bit of an argument this past week about how the cars have performed. You’re in a bit of a unique situation racing for your grandfather. Do you feel like there’s some added pressure considering you’re racing for a Hall of Famer as well your grandfather or feel more at ease because he’s family and is a proven champion car owner?
Dillon: I put the pressure on myself. I don’t want to be not good. I think I’m capable of doing this and running in the Cup Series and have the confidence to do it. I truthfully feel like RCR has all the equipment to do it and we were underperforming with what we had. [The argument] was just kind of needed to get it out and there’s still a lot of work we need to do. But this [win] sure feels good.
PB: Another reason your win was so popular was because it was the first win for the #3 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since Dale Earnhardt’s final win in 2000. Don’t know if anyone has told you this but you join an incredible list of drivers who have won in the #3. Ricky Rudd, Buddy Baker, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, David Pearson and Fireball Roberts have all won in addition to Earnhardt in a #3 car.
It’s well known that you really wanted to bring back the #3 in the Cup Series and now that you have won with that number, what’s it like to join that iconic list?
Dillon: That’s a heck of a list, I’m glad you told me that. I haven’t even been able to think about that, but that makes me feel really good because I feel like each and every one of those guys are Hall of Famers. So just to be on that list is special.
PB: Now NASCAR has implemented stage racing for the first time this season. Now that you’ve raced on a variety of tracks with stage racing [everything except road courses], what are your thoughts about stage racing now and would you want to make any changes to that?
Dillon: I think it’s perfect. I like that we added a fourth stage to the Coke 600. I think NASCAR’s doing their job to create interesting ways to go in these races. And stages mean more points you have to worry about at the end of the year so you gotta be aggressive to get those stage points and I think it’s great for our sport. We’re changing with the new times and the way things are going and we just gotta keep on moving and improving the way we can.
PB: It definitely makes the beginning of the races more exciting because you can strategize for the end of the race but you didn’t really need to do that in the beginning and middle stages so you now have to be on your toes all the time to take those points because they aren’t points to be disregarded. You have to go for them if you want to win at the end.
Dillon: You do, you have to. And I hope, I think now with the position we’re in that’s what we’re going to be doing a lot more of.
PB: Now, going into my next question. You are the ninth different winner in the first 12 races of the season. In all the years NASCAR has had the current elimination structure, all regular season race winners have made the playoffs. Considering your points position, currently 21st [lowest among the nine winners], do you feel one win is enough to get you in? (If more than 16 drivers win, those tied with one win will be ordered by regular season points to break the tiebreaker)
Dillon: I don’t know. I’m hoping it is but we got a lot of work to go. I want to go win more and we’re just going to keep on keeping on and see if we can’t get a couple more of these guys and win another one.
PB: Now I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about your Carolina Panthers. You’re a big Panthers fan. What did you think of the Panthers draft this year and what are you hoping to see out of them this upcoming season?
Dillon: Well, I think the Panthers are in a really good situation. I thought their draft was awesome, it got us a new type of speed that we haven’t had in a long time. Got some weapons for Cam and hope he utilizes them and I like our new offensive lineman we got, I think, in the third round, Taylor Moton (last pick of the second round). I think he’s going to be a help that we need.
So Panthers are sitting good. We need to rekindle the flame that we were able to create to go to the Super Bowl a couple years ago and let Cam run!