At Daytona, No. 3 plus No. 88 equaled perfect
February 26, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Late Sunday night, after a rain-delayed marathon of a Daytona 500 had finally come to an end, Austin Dillon was standing next to his car on pit road answering questions about his ninth-place finish when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie abruptly stopped speaking in mid-sentence. He turned and looked at the sight of Rick Hendrick sitting on the window ledge of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s race car, the two of them zipping down the frontstretch toward Victory Lane.
"Very cool for Dale Jr." Dillon said. "That's awesome, man."
Indeed, it was. It was one thing for the No. 3 car to return to NASCAR's top level for the first time in 13 seasons, driven by the grandson of Dale Earnhardt's former car owner. It was another thing for Earnhardt Jr. to win the sport's biggest race in an event that rain pushed into prime time. It was something else for both of those to happen together, on the same night, in a perfect confluence of past and present at Daytona International Speedway.
"I think that's awesome to have the 3 back and the 88 win the race," Dillon said, referring to Earnhardt's car number. "That's very cool." The No. 3 led the first lap and the No. 88 led the final one, bringing full circle a race loaded with significance for two drivers whose personal relationship helped make the return of the elder Earnhardt's former number a reality.
It was Earnhardt whom Dillon called to first ask for permission to bring the No. 3 back to the sport's top level. It was Earnhardt, shaped by the loss of his father, who provided advice and mentorship to Dillon as the younger driver climbed the ladder through the sport's national divisions. Together they helped engineer a near-seamless return for one of NASCAR's most iconic car numbers, which Dillon drove to the Coors Light Pole last weekend and to a top-10 finish Sunday night.
And for all of it to be capped by Earnhardt Jr. winning his second Daytona 500 a decade after his first -- there was something poetic about it, something unmistakable even amid the brightness of NASCAR's most popular driver winning NASCAR's biggest race.
"I'm really happy for Junior, because he's really handled this whole bringing the 3 back with so much class and elegance," Gil Martin, Dillon's crew chief, said in the garage after the race. "He's supported the whole thing the whole time when other people haven't. He's been probably one of the No. 1 supporters of this whole thing, and that says a lot about him. And I think it says a lot that he knows so much about this sport and the history of it. So for him to win (Sunday night) -- if we couldn’t win, I couldn’t think of a better candidate."
Dillon had been the talk of the first half of Speedweeks, and not just by bringing back the No. 3, but by being fast in it -- the 23-year-old won the pole in the same car that had topped the board in testing a month earlier. He led the first lap, dropped back in the field, and weathered an adventurous night before surging to ninth at the end. Meanwhile, Earnhardt was at the front, engaged in a riveting duel with a handful of other contenders, the threat of looming inclement weather leading all of them to brawl lap after lap like it was the final circuit of the race. Third-place Brad Keselowski called it perhaps the hardest-fought Daytona 500 ever, and from the outside, it certainly looked like it.
At the end, though, Earnhardt simply was too much, at last snapping that spate of runner-up finishes at Daytona -- three in the past four years -- with a trip to Victory Lane to match the one he made in 2004. Parked on pit road, Dillon watched the ensuing celebration unfold, a smile on his face. The No. 3 had started it, the No. 88 had finished it, and given all the connections between the drivers involved, it all added up to perfect.
"I think there's a lot of special things from (Sunday night)," said Richie Gilmore, chief operating officer at Earnhardt Childress Engines, and a former executive at Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- the team founded by the elder Earnhardt, and where Dale Jr. started his career. "The 3 coming back was a big night. Junior getting the win, I think it very special for a lot of things."
Indeed, Earnhardt Jr. was key in helping to build public support for the return of the No. 3, his immediate blessing removing perhaps the biggest potential road block to its reappearance at the sport's top level. To Dillon, the number had always been something of a family heirloom -- Childress had used it in his driving days, and Austin had worn it on his baseball jersey before embarking upon championship campaigns on the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series. On qualifying day, Dillon embraced the idea of him and Earnhardt potentially sweeping the front row. That didn't happen, so the two drivers bookended Speedweeks instead.
"That is pretty cool. That is really cool," added Mike Dillon, Austin's father and RCR's general manager. "Especially the way that Junior could have made or broken this deal. He's really been supportive. I'm probably happier for him winning the race, because he really has supported this. Because he could have made a difference in how everybody else accepted this, and probably whether or not we brought it back. That is cool that he won the race."
The significance wasn't lost on Earnhardt Jr., who said he thought about holding up three fingers as he rolled down the straightaway celebrating his victory. He decided not to, wanting the spotlight to remain on people like Hendrick and his crew chief, Steve Letarte. Even so, Earnhardt's ease with his father's old number being back on the race track was evident, particularly in the wake of his biggest race win in a decade.
"It felt so comfortable all week for that number to be back," Earnhardt said. "I'm happy with that situation. I'm happy for Austin. You guys (in the media) have gotten to know him over the last couple years. He's got a great head on his shoulders. He appreciates the history of the number. He appreciates not only what it meant as an Earnhardt fan, but what it meant for his family. It means something entirely unique to him separate of my father. I appreciate that, and I'm happy for him and Richard. They're really enjoying that experience together. That's got to be something special, grandfather and grandson, to be able to do that together. I'm very comfortable. I had not thought about it once all week, because it just seems right."
It's easy to see why. According to Gilmore, Earnhardt and Dillon have a solid rapport that stems not just from the rookie driver turning to a close family friend for advice, but also the veteran's willingness to act as the kind of mentor he himself sorely needed following his father's fatal crash at Daytona in 2001.
"I think he and Austin have a great relationship," Gilmore said. "… Junior is going to be 40 this year, and it's something for him to take that role and give him advice. Junior, he lost his dad at a time when Junior was looking for advice. He had just gotten into the sport, and we were here, and I remember Junior going out and talking about his dad, and telling him that his race car was pushing. (Earnhardt Sr.) told him, 'It ain't pushing. It's air.' Listening to their conversations, he didn't have all that time, and I know he enjoys telling Austin those things and mentoring him, and the other young kids in this garage. I think he likes that senior role."
Mike Dillon, himself a former national-series driver who made one Cup start, can see it as well. "Austin communicates with (Earnhardt) a lot, about a lot of different things about the business," he said. "And I tell him to call those guys and ask them, because they’ve gone through it and made the mistakes, so why wouldn't he use them? If you’ve got him there, and if they're willing to talk to you and help you, why wouldn't you use them?"
For all the goodwill that flowed through the garage area Sunday night, there was still some dissatisfaction in the RCR camp, which had consistently the fastest cars of Speedweeks yet did not win a race. In the Daytona 500, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman were caught up in crashes -- the latter after some contact with Dillon -- and Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing team is a Childress affiliate, lost an engine before a six-hour rain delay pushed the bulk of the event into the evening.
So in the end, Dillon was the team's lone remaining hope. And yet, with Earnhardt spinning donuts and the crowd erupting in jubilance, it would have been difficult to imagine a more fitting conclusion Sunday night even if the draft had somehow swept that No. 3 car to victory.
"I almost think if the 3 would have won (Sunday night), it would have been like when Junior first got in it -- too much pressure, too quick," Gilmore said. "I think what Austin's talked about a lot is, 'I'm a rookie this year, and if I finish top 15 in points, that’s my goal.' He's got realistic goals, and is a real smart kid, and I think that might have been too much pressure too quick."
Dillon certainly seemed content with it all. "It was a great finish. Dale Jr. and won, and (I got) a top 10. I'm really happy," he said. From start to finish, these Speedweeks at Daytona were all about two drivers and two organizations bound together by a single number, and the end result was a celebration in which both sides took immense satisfaction -- even if only one of them could win.
"I don’t think," Gilmore said, "you could ask for a better night."