Earnhardt legacy evident in Dillon's pole run
February 19, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It was about so much more than seeing the air.
Certainly that's the legend, and no one will ever dispute it. But if there was a real key to Dale Earnhardt's greatness on NASCAR's biggest race tracks -- aside from the innate driving ability hidden behind those dark sunglasses, of course -- it may have been found less in his perceived ability to visualize the aerodynamic forces swirling around him, and more in his knack for helping to build vehicles that could rise above them.
Performance on restrictor-plate tracks is as much a part of Earnhardt lore as the color of his car or the sometimes menacing quality of his nature, which makes it such a cruel irony that it took him 20 years to win the Daytona 500. That quest in the Great American Race belied a level of plate track excellence that was apparent in everything Earnhardt touched, from his longtime association with Richard Childress, to his own race team, to the organization he left behind -- as evidenced by Austin Dillon clinching the top starting spot for the biggest NASCAR event of the year.
The connection between then and now is more than just a black race car with the same stylized No. 3. Richard Childress's Racing's blitz of this Speedweeks, which has seen a number of vehicles owned by or affiliated with RCR at the top of the speed chart, goes back to an ethos instilled within the organization during Earnhardt's glory days. There's a direct connection between Earnhardt's successes on plate tracks and Dillon's pole run this past weekend, one that transcends two different drivers of two different generations behind the wheel of a vehicle bearing the same number.
"He and RC together created a restrictor-plate program that was second to none," three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, now a race analyst for FOX Sports, said of Earnhardt. "Dale just had a knack. It wasn't about seeing the wind or any of that stuff. He just had a knack for what it took to make a car go out on this race track all day long for 500 miles, little things that he knew how to do to the cars that he passed on."
For Earnhardt and Childress, winning on plate tracks was a priority, and the effort that went into those races reflected it. Larry McReynolds, Earnhardt's crew chief for 45 Cup races over two seasons, said the No. 3 team began building the car that would win the 1998 Daytona 500 in the summer of the previous season, and spent the better part of six months fine-tuning it. That vehicle was sent to the wind tunnel and tested a half-dozen times even before the 1997 campaign ended, McReynolds remembered, and that same level of emphasis exists today at RCR and Earnhardt Childress Engines, the latter of which builds engines for Childress and its affiliated programs.
"There's just something in the DNA of Richard Childress, and I think a lot of that came from Dale Earnhardt, that he puts a lot of pride in winning at Daytona and Talladega, and especially in the Daytona 500, preforming well," said McReynolds, also a FOX Sports analyst. "I think that has been exemplified down here not just with the 3 and Austin Dillon sitting on the pole, but all three of the RCR drivers are in the top 10. So many ECR engine packages are in the top 10. … I don’t think it's a fluke that that 3 is on the pole."
Certainly not, given the speed Dillon and his RCR counterparts showed on the same track in January testing. And just as in Earnhardt's era, the groundwork was laid well in advance -- the week after Thanksgiving last year, RCR and ECR tested at General Motors' Desert Proving Ground in Yuma, Ariz., a facility with a 3.5-mile oval and 1.4-mile straight track, with the Daytona 500 specifically in mind. "We had guys give up vacation time. It's amazing the sacrifice that goes into it," said Richie Gilmore, chief operating officer of ECR.
The foundation for all that goes back to Earnhardt and Childress, and the common mindset they shared, and how it manifested itself in an emphasis on winning at the sport's two biggest tracks. Earnhardt instilled that same importance at Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he started his own team in 1996. Childress was ahead of his time in forming a technical alliance with DEI and Andy Petree Racing, in which the three organizations shared aerodynamic information. As a racer who once built his own engines and car bodies -- "Richard has oil in his veins," said Danny Lawrence, ECR's trackside manager -- the car owner remains attuned to the vehicles and what makes them perform.
"You go to a test, and if … the car doesn't respond and it doesn't pick up speed, Richard will say, 'Well, that's the body.' But if we have a car where all the cars run the same speed and they're not good, Richard knows, OK, maybe we missed it on this, maybe we missed it on that. He still comes through there. He still looks at the dyno sheets. He still is very, very much involved. Richard loves the engines," said Lawrence, who built the engine Earnhardt used to win the Daytona 500 in 1998.
"He is so dedicated and so into every little detail, and he's the one that puts that into us, that you would be surprised. Richard knows what spark plugs that we have in the car. He knows every piece of it, and he understands how it works, and it makes my job easier when you've got a guy, when you explain to him, OK, we pushed it a little bit too far or we got a little bit too hot. You can't pull the cover over him, either, because he knows when you're trying to ‑‑ just BS him, I guess you could say."
That level of attentiveness has been evident in performance. Earnhardt may have spent two decades chasing triumph in NASCAR's biggest race, but along the way he became the all-time winner at Daytona, with 34 victories at the track in all races -- ranging from Nationwide to the summertime 400-miler to qualifying events to IROC -- combined. He enjoyed an 11-year span at Daytona where he was near untouchable, finishing outside of the top 10 just three times. He recorded a record 10 Cup victories at Talladega, capped by his epic final victory. He brought that same degree of restrictor-plate devotion to DEI, which in the early to mid-2000s enjoyed a streak of dominance at Daytona and Talladega that no team has since been able to match.
"Richard Childress -- and I was there for four years -- pushed us to perform everywhere," McReynolds said. "It wasn’t like he handpicked a few race tracks. But a lot of this was truly was stimulated by Dale Earnhardt, because he wanted to perform at Daytona and Talladega."
That stimulation still exists, now 13 years after Earnhardt was behind the wheel for the final time, and in this first Sprint Cup Series campaign to see the No. 3 car on the track since then. The front row for the Daytona 500 is comprised of Dillon and Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing team has a technical alliance with RCR and uses ECR engines. RCR drivers Paul Menard and Ryan Newman were consistently among the fastest over the first half of Speedweeks, and Nationwide Series regular Brian Scott -- driving a fourth RCR entry, a No. 33 car -- virtually assured himself of a berth in the Daytona 500 with his qualifying run Sunday.
"Let’s go back to last year and remember, the 3 is the old 29," McReynolds said. "And you go back to last year, Kevin Harvick won the Sprint Unlimited, he won the Budweiser Duel, and I truly believe he was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Daytona 500 had he not been caught up in that wreck early in the race with (Kasey) Kahne and Kyle Busch. It’s not like that performance fell out of the sky. It’s something that Richard Childress puts a lot of pride in, and really pushes his people to perform at."
And it all stems from those days when Childress and Earnhardt were the favorites at restrictor-plate venues from the moment that black and white transporter rolled through the tunnel. The No. 3 car is back, and it has a different driver now, but the philosophies that propelled Austin Dillon to the pole for the Daytona 500 are the same as those that launched Earnhardt to victory here so many years ago.
"That’s our history, how dominant Dale and Richard were," Gilmore said. "It's our heritage."