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Dillon has more than earned his place in NASCAR

August 14, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Nationwide Series points leader has been prone to unjust criticism because of his lineage

Blame the hat.

As distinctive and as eye-catching as it is, there’s something about the thing that can rub people the wrong way. Cowboy hats are meant to convey independence and individuality, characteristics that helped build the American west. Yet in some less frontier settings -- say, a race track -- they can so stand out, that some folks imagine 10 gallons of hubris stuffed inside.

And so it goes with Austin Dillon, who has made the cowboy hat his own, and just might be the most polarizing driver at NASCAR’s national level not named Busch. It’s amazing, really -- here’s this exceedingly polite, extremely talented, law-abiding and sponsor-friendly 23-year-old who’s succeeded along every step of his career climb, and yet still rankles a certain segment of the fan base because he happens to be the grandson of Richard Childress, a six-time championship car owner in the Sprint Cup Series.

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It all makes zero sense, especially given that the most popular driver on NASCAR’s premier circuit is himself the scion of a seven-time champion. In the case of Dale Earnhardt Jr., though, that little detail seems not to matter. In the case of Austin Dillon -- and to a lesser extent, his younger brother Ty -- it’s the cause of endless pining on social media, where the more nearsighted among the fan base unfairly paint the current Nationwide Series points leader as just some rich kid who made it solely because of granddad.

This in a sport that takes immense pride in the way NASCAR careers are passed from father to son or brother to brother like family heirlooms, paving the way for one Earnhardt, Petty, Wallace, Jarrett, Sauter, Sadler, Elliott, Hornaday, Keselowski, Ragan, Truex, Busch or Burton after another to break into the family business. Some of those had a more difficult time making it happen, while some were helped by the successes that came before them. Either way, as the grandson of a former driver turned car owner, and the son of a former driver turned team executive, Dillon hardly breaks the mold.

Yet judging from the some of the reaction after Dillon was named to replace the injured Tony Stewart this weekend at Michigan International Speedway -- a completely sensible decision on so many levels -- you’d think he’d stolen the No. 14 car rather than been asked to drive it. Clearly Stewart has a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for Dillon, something evident not only after the younger driver won last month’s Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, but also in SHR’s decision this week. Coming from a popular, salt-of-the-earth, three-time champion, you would hope that sentiment would go a long way.

Maybe not. To be fair, though, Dillon surely has many more fans than detractors. But the fact that he has detractors at all is somewhat stunning, given how he carries himself at such a young age, given the respect he’s shown in bringing the No. 3 back to NASCAR’s national level, given that when he makes reference to a curse word -- and we’re talking really mild stuff here, something you can utter on prime-time network television -- he can’t bring himself to say it. He spells it out.

Even so, haters gonna hate.

“I don’t ever really think about it,” Dillon said. “Twitter’s there, but if you say something, I’ll just block you, know what I mean? I don’t have to listen to it, so I’ve got the block button. That’s the best thing about it. I think that’s the only place that I could ever see it coming. Other than that, you might hear somebody yell something in the stands once or twice, but I’ve rode around with Kyle (Busch), and that’s a lot easier, because they really yell when he rides around. But I think Dale Earnhardt said it best -- if they’re even booing for you, it’s good. No matter what they’re doing, as long as they’re talking about you, that’s good, I think.”

Goodness, he even paraphrases the Intimidator. It’s difficult to fathom why so many make a target out of Dillon when he’s far from the first driver to be helped along by family money -- especially given that he’s produced the kind of results not to have to rely on it. No question, there are some drivers who blow the family fortune riding around in circles. But Dillon’s vehicles are backed by outside companies. He’s won a Truck Series title, he leads the Nationwide standings, he’s finished 11th in just his ninth Sprint Cup race, he outran a stacked field at Eldora. In a performance-based sport, he’s shown enough of it to make his own name.

Maybe it’s the hat. Maybe it’s the lingering resentment of a minority who think the No. 3 -- which Dillon will likely return to NASCAR’s top level when he moves into the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 -- should be mothballed forever. Maybe it’s the anachronistic viewpoint that he’s always the beneficiary of good cars, something even Richard Petty was saddled with back in the day. It all obscures the fact that Dillon is a grounded driver who learned from his elders and understands motorsports is but one part of a much wider world.

“My grandfather is what pushes me, because I know how hard he works, and I know how much time he puts into it. At his age today, he’s not sitting on a golf course. He’s still working and still pushing and still trying to give my family and a lot of other families at our company great opportunities. That’s what pushes me, and I know I have to work hard for that. I never would want to let him down, or any of the guys at our company,” he said.

“I’ve built a great group of guys around me that keep me humble, with my family and everybody else in the garage. And I tell them, ‘Man, if I step out of line, you just let me know.’ I’m kind of open that way. I’m right out forward with them, and they’re right out forward with me, and I hope it’s always that way. That’s the way it’s got to be. I’ve watched a lot of drivers come through our company. I’ve sat and watched my grandfather go through it with them. As far as when it comes to certain things, you try not to worry, and do your own things.”

With that, Dillon is starting to sound like another prominent NASCAR driver who is often misunderstood by the public at large. “Jimmie Johnson has won (five) championships, and I don’t think his respect is there, personally,” he said. Give him credit for paying attention to the right people, another feather in his (cowboy) hat. Need more? There’s always that big golden shovel he earned for his Eldora victory, another symbol of all he’s already accomplished in NASCAR. Sure trumps a perceived silver spoon any day.


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