Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ Graham Gano needs holder, auditions NASCAR’s Austin Dillon

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Austin Dillon got a chance to be a football player for a day on Wednesday.

Well, a holder, at least.

Dillon joined Panthers kicker Graham Gano at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s infield Wednesday afternoon as the track “kicked off” the 10 days of racing that culminate with the Coca-Cola 600 on May 29.

“I won’t kick your hand if you don’t pull a Charlie Brown on me,” Gano said to Dillon as they got warmed up.

It took a few tries, but Dillon finally started to understand what Gano likes out of his holder. That’s something Swayze Waters and Mike Palardy will have to get used to.

Waters and Palardy, and possibly another player, will vie for the vacant punter job for the Panthers this summer. Punter Brad Nortman left for Jacksonville in free agency, leaving Carolina without a punter – and without a holder for field goals and extra points.

Gano and Nortman had developed a close friendship in Gano’s four seasons with the Panthers. They, along with long snapper J.J. Jansen, had lockers beside each other, walked to the practice field at the same time, even had Bible study together.

When Gano signed with the Panthers late in the 2012 season, he and Nortman had less than a week of practice to get to know one another. In their first game together, Gano went 3-for-4 on extra points and made his only field-goal attempt, from 23 yards. Gano, who signed a four-year, $12.4 million deal before the 2014 season, finished last season with 146 points – second-most in the NFL.

“There are a lot of little things,” Gano said. “Last year I would say a few words to Brad like ‘lean forward’ and he would do it. We were doing it for four years and we had that rhythm. It doesn’t take long to get. I think both (Waters and Palardy) will pick up on it and I think it’s something that will happen fast.”

Advantage Waters?

Waters figures to have the advantage at punter over Palardy going into summer workouts. A former CFL special teams player of the year, Waters signed with the Panthers shortly after their Super Bowl loss in the event they wouldn’t re-sign Nortman.

Waters and Gano texted a little after Waters signed with the team. Waters has been in Charlotte for just two weeks, but he’s already getting to know the kicker.

Both Waters and Palardy joined Gano at the speedway.

“That’s the job – to make the place kicker happy,” Waters said. “Getting to know him on a friendship level and teammate level, and outside of that knowing exactly what he wants and just repping that out.

“Punting’s important and that’d be my title if things work out, but holding is just as important. It’s the unsung hero type of job.

“The goal there is to not be noticed and I’ve been talking to Graham about how he likes the ball and working out on my own.”

Dillon can attest to that. The driver first tried to hold the ball using his right hand for the right-footed kicker, and Gano had to instruct him to use his left.

Trial and error

With the wind blowing right-to-left and Gano not wanting to go all out, Gano needed the ball placed a specific way. Dillon finally figured it out after about a half-dozen tries.

“The first one I had a really tight grip on it and when it ripped out of my fingers I was like, whoa, there was power from that,” Dillon said. “Then I started lightening up the grip as I got relaxed. I didn’t hold it right the first couple of times and then got my angle right the last time. He’s just got a lot of power in those legs. That’s impressive.”

Dillon, who drives the No. 3 car and was wearing a custom Panthers jersey with the No. 03, got his shot at kicking. Gano offered him one of the pairs of cleats that he wore in Super Bowl 50, and Dillon made the field goal on his third attempt.

Gano offered to give Dillon the cleats, but Dillon didn’t think he was serious. After Dillon drove Gano, Waters and Palardy around the track for three laps each, Gano again offered the cleats to Dillon.

Dillon refused the offer several times, but Gano persisted.

“I’ll get more Super Bowl cleats,” Gano said.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9