ThatsRacin

NASCAR: Austin Dillon puts iconic No. 3 back in Victory Lane with 600 win

Austin Dillon celebrates after winning the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Austin Dillon celebrates after winning the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The No. 3 is back in Victory Lane.

Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 Chevy owned by his grandfather Richard Childress and made famous by seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, got the first victory of his NASCAR Cup series career in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Dillon, 27, coaxed his car to the checkered flag, running 69 laps on his final tank of fuel and finishing ahead of second-place Kyle Busch, who passed Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap. Dillon had so little gas left his celebratory burnout was brief and his car had to be pushed to the postrace celebration.

Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, and the No. 3 was retired. But when Childress’ grandsons became racers, he brought the car out of retirement for Austin.

Sunday, Dillon put the No. 3 back in Victory Lane at a Cup series race for the first time since Earnhardt did it in October of 2000 at Talladega.

“Can you believe this?” Childress asked. “The Coke 600 and Austin Dillon. It’s so special to see that 3 in the winner’s circle again.”

Childress said nothing can replace Earnhardt and what he did in the No. 3 car, but that the victory helped validate Dillon.

“I think it shows he deserved to be in the 3,” Childress said. “He doesn’t show emotion and pressure, but I can tell you away from the track and in talks, he knew how much he wanted to win for all the 3 fans.”

Dillon deflected any comparison of himself and Earnhardt.

“That was the best of all time,” he said. “I’m just glad to add to the legacy, and I want to keep adding to it.”

To do that Sunday, he had to hold off Truex, who dominated much of the night. Truex looked like he was on the way to a second-consecutive victory in the 600, NASCAR’s longest race. After leading a NASCAR-record 588 of 600 miles to win in 2016, Truex again spent most of the night toying with the field.

When he made a green-flag pit stop on Lap 369 along with two of the night’s other top cars, Truex beat Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth out. But the stop put him behind eight cars that hadn’t pitted – two-time 2017 winner Jimmie Johnson, Phoenix winner Ryan Newman and Richmond winner Joey Logano, all in position to gamble, among them.

Also near the front, in second place, was Dillon, stretching fuel.

Truex was up to third with 12 laps to go, making up a second a lap but too far back to catch the leaders. When Johnson ran out of gas with two laps to go, only Dillon, remained.

Dillon coaxed the No. 3 to the finish, becoming the fifth driver to earn his first victory in the 600 and virtually securing a place in NASCAR’s playoffs.

“We’re in the Chase, baby,” Dillon said. “It’s awesome!”

Crew chief Justin Alexander, in his first week on the job with Dillon, made the strategy call. If there were nervous moments, he didn’t show it.

“We were two or three laps short,” Alexander said. “You have the option to stretch it, but there’s a risk with that. It didn’t make much sense to do anything but that, really.

“I’m surprised more guys didn’t do it.”

And he’s glad he, and Dillon, did.

Race breakdown

Stage 1: After the field cycled through green-flag stops between Laps 65 and 78, Martin Truex Jr. was in the lead, chased by Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.

Truex, who led the most laps in the previous two 600s, was eventually caught by Busch, who led the most laps in the first 100-lap segment and won by more than a second. Truex was second, Harvick third and Jimmie Johnson fourth.

Stage 2: Truex dominated both before and after the rain, leading 93 of the 100 laps.

After restarting in the lead after the red flag, Truex was stalked by Johnson for 23 laps before Johnson was caught in pit road traffic after a cut tire put Danica Patrick in the wall and caused a caution. With Johnson restarting fourth. Truex passed Paul Menard, who had stayed out. Johnson retook second but couldn’t catch Truex, who took his sixth stage win of the NASCAR season.

Johnson finished second, followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch.

Stage 3: After restarting with the lead with three laps to go, Denny Hamlin held on for his second stage win of the season. Truex had dominated the stage, leading 90 laps, but restarted fourth after the late stops and couldn’t make up the difference.

Three who mattered

Martin Truex Jr.: Second in the first segment, first in the second, fourth in the third. He’s been great at Charlotte for three years now, including his record-setting domination to win the 600 in 2016. But twice in those three seasons he has lost on fuel mileage.

Jimmie Johnson: Traditionally good at Charlotte, Johnson, a four-time 600 winner, was around the lead all night. Running out of gas with two laps left dropped him to a 17th-place finish that didn’t reflect his night.

Kyle Busch: For most of the night he was the only driver with anything for Truex. His pass of Truex for second on the final lap would have been legendary – if not for Dillon making history of his own.

Observations

▪  If you’ve never seen it in person, know that the traditional pre-race show for the 600 never disappoints. The playing of “Taps,” to honor fallen soldiers, raises the hair on my arms every time.

▪  Kyle Busch passed pole-sitter Harvick on the outside on Lap 2. Then, after Harvick took the lead on pit stops for a crash involving Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott, Harvick maintained that lead on the restart – after choosing the outside lane. Those outside passes sure seemed like a sign of things to come.

▪  The question before the race was whether the sealer applied to the track to provide extra grip in the top lane would make the race more competitive. Back in the field it did, but if you were watching Truex lead lap after lap for the first three segments, you didn’t see it.

Worth mentioning

▪  Kasey Kahne and Austin Dillon (unapproved tire change) were moved to the back of the field at the start.

▪  A red flag for lightning in the area stopped the race on Lap 143, and a deluge followed. The red-flag stoppage lasted one hour, 39 minutes, 56 seconds before 11 caution laps followed. NASCAR and the speedway used 10 jet driers, 12 Air Titans, three vacuum trucks and 200 employees to dry the track.

Michael Persinger: 704-358-5132, @mikepersinger

Next race

AAA 400 Drive for Autism

Where: Dover International Speedway, Dover, Del.

When: 1-mile high-banked oval.

TV: FS1.

Radio: MRN.

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