Auto Racing: Jam-packed day for Nationwide rookie Dillon
By Tina Akouris firstname.lastname@example.org July 21, 2012 6:52PM
Austin Dillon, in his signature cowboy hat, signs an autograph for a fan Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet. | Tina Akouris~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 23, 2012 10:48AM
The buzz around Austin Dillon’s hauler Saturday morning at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet wasn’t about the $100,000 bonus he won last week in New Hampshire in NASCAR’s Dash 4 Cash program or his already stellar Nationwide rookie season racing for his grandfather’s team at Richard Childress Racing.
Instead, everyone was asking everyone else if they washed their hands.
“Do we have hand sanitizer?” Dillon asked no one in particular.
“Why?” a crew member said. “Did you shake hands with Elliott (Sadler)?”
During a joint news conference with Dillon just a half hour earlier, Sadler announced he was on the tail end of a stomach virus that kept him in bed for about 36 hours and unable to eat until Saturday morning. Sadler wasn’t sure if he was contagious, but Dillon inched away from his RCR teammate anyway.
Then it was off to the races — literally.
Dillon is driving the No. 3 AdvoCare Chevrolet for RCR, which also has Sadler in the No. 2 car and Brendan Gaughan in the No. 33 for Sunday’s STP 300 Nationwide race in Joliet.
RCR is heavy with a Childress-Dillon connection. Dillon’s father, Mike, is the organization’s vice president of competition and younger brother Ty races in the Camping World Truck Series.
What potentially weighs more on Austin Dillon’s shoulders isn’t letting down his famous grandfather but driving the iconic No. 3. It was Dale Earnhardt’s number when he died during the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Childress was Earnhardt’s owner and gets emotional talking about Earnhardt.
“He likes the challenge and he respects what Dale did with it,” Childress said of Dillon. “I would never let anyone run it in the truck or Nationwide other than someone in our family or an Earnhardt. I don’t compare anyone to Dale, but I see that Dale respected the fans and the sport and (Ty and Austin) learned that.”
Dillon rolled out of bed around 9:30 a.m. at his motorhome on the Speedway’s motorcoach lot, a secure area that is near the garage area. His first appointment was a rookie driver’s meeting at 10:10, where he listened to Riverton, Ill., native Justin Allgaier. Then came the news conference with Sadler at 10:45.
After the news conference, Dillon went to the garage area for the first practice session but stopped to sign autographs. Dillon ran a clean 90-minute practice session over 29 laps.
Radio chatter between Dillon, Childress, spotter Andy Houston and crew chief Gil Martin was calm as Dillon ran the eighth-fastest practice speed of 169.651 mph. Huddling with his crew and Childress after practice in the team’s hauler, Dillon said the bump in Turn 3 was a little problematic.
Martin is Dillon’s temporary crew chief since Danny Stockman was suspended for two weeks after the Daytona race on July 6. NASCAR penalized the No. 3 team for having only one air duct taped.
In the second practice session, Dillon turned a top speed of 171.799, good enough for third fastest.
“I wanted to be first so it was a good run but we were too loose,” Dillon said.
If Dillon had struggled, his team would have canceled an hour-long autograph session at 3 p.m. and had a mandatory team meeting.
Dillon made the autograph appearance with Johanna Long, T.J. Bell, Jason Bowles, Ryan Truex, Brian Scott, Sam Hornish Jr. and Kyle Busch, who was the last to arrive.
“Am I done yet?” Dillon asked RCR communications manager Jackie Franzil as they drove away from the session in a golf cart.
“No, you have one more thing with your grandfather,” Franzil said.
Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon and Childress received watches from Montana Watches. Childress, who has property in Montana, has friends at the company.
One thing Dillon does not worry about is sponsorship. While some Nationwide and Cup teams struggle to get and retain sponsors, Dillon has a strong relationship with AdvoCare — a Plano, Texas-based company that makes energy drinks and other health foods — Bass Pro Shops and American Ethanol.
Dillon’s bloodline aside, the kid already is a great driver. The 22-year-old has 10 top-five finishes (including the last three races in a row), 13 top 10s and one win (Kentucky on June 29) in 17 races this season. He also drove in the Sprint Cup race at Michigan on June 17 and finished 24th.
“My number means something and it pushes me and it’s nice to race with it,” Dillon said. “It’s the same every week. Everyone expects that number to run well.”