Austin Dillon saw him in the distance wearing a white Ford hat.
It was the day before the Advance Auto Parts Clash, the non-points race one week prior to the Daytona 500, and Dillon was signing autographs.
The boy approached him, big-eyed.
“I told him, ‘Look, man, if you ain’t got a favorite driver, I’ll give you my hat if you choose me as your favorite,’ ” Dillon recalled to NASCAR.com while touring New York City this week as Daytona 500 champion.
The terms were agreeable. Dillon whipped the hat off his head, signed it and handed it over. The boy thanked him and pledged his allegiance.
The interaction was over. Until it wasn’t.
• • •
The boy came back to Daytona the next day, and Dillon spotted him. It was easy — 11-year-old Jordan Wade was wearing his hat.
Jordan yelled Dillon’s name and motioned him over. Dillon ran over.
“Hey man, I have this for you,” Jordan said. He flashed a penny.
“He gave me the hat, and I had to think of something to give him back in return,” Jordan said. “Most people wouldn’t pick up a penny, you know, but they’d pick up a quarter or a nickel. But I gave it to him for good luck.”
Dillon’s mind immediately began churning, working its way backward to 20 years prior in 1998. The Intimidator. Wessa Miller. A lucky penny affixed to the dashboard of that No. 3 Chevrolet, which Earnhardt would famously steer into Victory Lane for the first time in his career in the Daytona 500.
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As Earnhardt posed for photo upon photo in Victory Lane that day, two little fellas joined him — Austin, then 7, and his brother Ty, then 5. It was a seminal moment in Austin Dillon’s life. He saw up-close Dale Earnhardt’s celebration, the joy exuding from his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress. It set his course on becoming a race car driver.
Twenty years later, Austin Dillon drives the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.
This clicked through his mind at perhaps a quarter-of-a-second when Jordan offered the penny.
“I was like, ‘Hey man, that’s good karma’ because of Dale having the penny in the car,” Dillon said. “We had it in the Clash car, and it ran well and avoided the wrecks.”
The Clash car, with the penny still inside, was sent back to Welcome, North Carolina, following the race. It had done its duty, stayed out of trouble and finished fifth. The No. 3 team had additional cars in Daytona Beach for the ensuing Can-Am Duel qualifying races and the Daytona 500 itself.
But then the green flag dropped on the Can-Am Duel races, and there was Dillon navigating through wreckage and debris, avoiding it as best he could but not altogether, not liking the feel of the machine underneath as much as he did the previous race.
He wanted his Clash car. He wanted the penny with it.
“The car actually went home, and I wanted to bring the Clash car back. I said to make sure we have the penny in the car,” Dillon said. “The guy I asked to do it was my underneath guy, Kevin Gladman. I was like, ‘Guys, we have to get that penny back. They were like, ‘It’s in North Carolina.’ I told them it doesn’t matter.”
The team made it happen, loading the hauler with the Clash car back up and driving down to Daytona in time for the weekend practices.
• • •
Austin Dillon, with a penny affixed to his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, won the 2018 Daytona 500. He did so with a last-lap pass on race leader Aric Almirola, although “pass” is probably one of several words you could use to describe his move.
“Turn” would work. Some might say “punt,” although the aggressive move which ended up sending Almirola into the outside retaining wall caused no ill will with the Stewart-Haas Racing driver.
“We were both trying to win the Daytona 500,” Almirola would say after the race.
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After the race, Dillon cut donuts into the infield, with some of the marks left behind looking like a “3,” perhaps the most iconic number in all of NASCAR. It holds extra special meaning to the Childress family, and to Dillon and fans of Earnhardt Nation, many of whom still hold up three fingers on the third lap of every race.
That famous No. 3 Chevrolet from 1998 sits inside the RCR Museum to this day, the penny still glued on. One day, this No. 3 will join it with its penny still attached.
“The penny’s going to live in that Daytona 500 car,” Dillon said. “I think it deserves it. It has a home. Most pennies that you find don’t have a home. That one has a home, you know what I mean?”
With Dillon’s Daytona 500 win came a champion’s tour to New York City, where Austin and wife Whitney did their best to take in the sites of the city while also making the talk-show rounds.
Dillon’s mind, on the rare bit of downtime it had to wander, invariably made its way back to Jordan.
“There was something about this kid,” Dillon said. “I felt something good about him.”
Dillon explained in detail how he wanted to get Jordan to the RCR shop, show him around. He likely had never seen the inside of a race car. Dillon wanted to pick him up and put him inside one, let him grab the steering wheel and cinch up.
Unbeknownst to Dillon, his team was working behind the scenes to make that happen.
On Wednesday, when Dillon and the No. 3 team were honored at Richard Childress Racing for their Daytona 500 win the day after touring New York City, Jordan was there. He was wearing a familiar hat.
“We were all hoping that he was going to win,” Jordan said from the RCR shop. “Then, with the luck I gave him, he won.”
Dillon gave Jordan that shop tour, with the two posing for pictures with fellow driver Darrell Wallace Jr., who finished second. Wallace Jr., who drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports, is the first African-American driver with a full-time ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since 1971.
His runner-up finish in the “Great American Race” is the best ever for a driver of color. Richard Petty Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing announced an alliance over the summer, with RPM relocating its shop to be closer to RCR. The two teams celebrated the 1-2 finish together.
Wednesday was a good day in Welcome.
“As far as fan engagement, it’s special,” Dillon said. “It’s cool. I feel like I made a kid who didn’t know if he liked NASCAR, and he was just kind of learning about it, I feel like I made him love it. Because I gave him something, and he gave me something. We’ll be tied together for a long time.”
It’s not unlike Dillon to want to give back, his wife, Whitney, chimed in. She’d been listening to the interview with NASCAR.com and couldn’t hold back this thought any longer.
“One of my favorite things about Austin is that he is so caring and giving to every person that he comes into contact with,” Whitney said. “He has touched so many lives, and the impact that he has at RCR — he would never tell you this–– with all of the employees. He knows most of them by names, he knows their backgrounds. He takes time to go there almost every single day. Half of his pit crew, they lived with him for a while so they could get on their feet and get going. It’s just cool. When you give, it just comes back.”
“I just try to give back a little to the fans who give us so much each and every weekend,” Austin Dillon added. “I just want ’em to love me.”
• • •
Dillon, 27, remains a part of NASCAR’s youth movement, although he’s a veteran of that group. Sunday was the second-youngest Daytona 500 field ever, so while being 27 is young, it’s not young in this current era of NASCAR.
Certainly Dillon still remembers traipsing through the garage as a child, collecting cards and looking up to his heroes to sign them. It wasn’t that long ago.
It’s those memories that linger now that Dillon is a driver himself. Every interaction he has with a child has meaning. Perhaps he simply makes a child’s day. Or perhaps he makes such an impact that the next Jordan he signs for is the next driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet.
The impact on Jordan is clear. That boy who never experienced a NASCAR race before last weekend? Ask him what he wants to be when he grows up.
“I want to be a NASCAR driver, now,” he said.
That’s how Dillon felt when he was a kid, too. And guess what? Now, he’s a NASCAR driver.
“I want people to experience what I’ve experienced since I was a kid, and be able to enjoy races and enjoy experiences,” Dillon said. “There’s a lot of good role models in NASCAR. When I was growing up, every driver would sign what I asked them to sign. My grandfather still does that.
“The biggest thing is, you have to give back to the sport that’s given you what you’ve got. If I can create experiences for kids that will bring their kids here, the Daytona 500 will live on forever.”
“I think it’s awesome to see what his involvement in NASCAR could be like,” Dillon continued. “Could he be the next president of a race team? An engineer? A crew chief? A driver? You never know what you’re creating when you meet a young kid that has everything in front of him.”
In the middle of this discussion, Dillon paused when returning to the anecdote from the Clash. The hat on his head wasn’t the only thing he’d given away, and suddenly the driver made a connection.
He gave the hat on his head to Jordan. Later, a young girl wearing a Chase Elliott hat walked by. Dillon good-naturedly teased her and asked if she’d consider becoming his fan, upping the ante with another hat his father had just purchased that day.
That interaction drew a crowd. To be fair, Dillon said he’d give the hat away to whoever answered a trivia question correctly. The little girl didn’t get the question right. Another boy did, and he earned the hat.
The girl wearing the Chase Elliott hat was saddened to see that second hat going to someone else, so the boy who received it kindly gave it to her. Moved, Dillon asked the boy to walk back to his golf cart. En route, Dillon took the shirt he was wearing, slipped it off over his head, signed it and gave it to that boy. He rode away in a golf cart, shirtless.
It suddenly dawned on Dillon the number of items he gave away. Two hats. One shirt. Three, total.
“Numbers are so weird,” he said, after a pause. “I gave away three things that night. That’s all I had to give away. Three.”
He pauses once more.
“Three is a magical number.”
Contributing: Torey Fox