• 59°

Dillon joins the pack of NASCAR young guns on the rise

CONCORD (AP) — The horde of 20-somethings and teenagers like Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and William Byron poised to take over NASCAR seems to grow larger every week. It might be time to add an older name in Austin Dillon to the “Who’s next?” breakout list.

Dillon, a NASCAR veteran at 27, pulled off a stunning upset at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night, staying out of the pit on the final laps to make up ground and capture the Coca Cola 600 with established winners Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. charging hard. Dillon had enough fuel to last to the checkered flag after sweeping past out-of-gas Jimmie Johnson two laps from the end.

The win gave Dillon his first trophy in the Cup series, brought the iconic No. 3 back to Victory Lane for the first time in 17 years and gave a boost to the team owned by his grandfather, Hall of Famer Richard Childress. Did it also put Dillon front and center among the next wave of racers supplanting retired or departing stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and, after this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

Dillon is not sure.

“It’s all about performance. Those guys are performing, so they’re going to talk about them,” Dillon said. “I knew we could do it, we’ve just got to do it more consistently. When we do, they’ll talk about us, too.”

Dillon’s performance at Charlotte had lots of people talking.

His new crew chief, Justin Alexander, saw no other strategy for Dillon at the end than to stay out while most other contenders pitted with 35 laps or so left. No one, Alexander reasoned, would outrun Truex’s car with fresh tires and lots of gas, so their best chance was to not give up position.

It was a gutsy move from Alexander, helming his first race with Dillon after being tapped for the job last Monday.

“That was a hell of a call, Justin,” Childress said, smiling.

Childress made some difficult calls to get here, as well. Two of the biggest were backing Austin in the No. 3 car that last took the checkered flag with the late Dale Earnhardt driving at Talladega in 2000. Childress heard critics pick apart his grandson’s skills and demeanor the past four seasons, with some claiming it was an embarrassment to sit him in the same numbered car that Earnhardt led to six of seven championships.

“I want to meet some of them in the parking lot,” said Childress, sounding like a protective granddad.

While there’s a long way for Dillon’s team to go, the win heartened everyone that better, more winning days, could be ahead. The victory most likely locks Dillon into the 16-team playoff at the end of the season for a second straight year. And it gives the team the rest of the regular season to test setups and packages that might succeed in those final 10 races.

“That’s pretty cool,” Dillon said.

It might also put him near the top of the pack for a younger group of NASCAR fans looking for a charismatic, fast-moving star to latch onto. With so many past champions and celebrated drivers leaving the series, Dillon understands that to rebuild the fan base, spectators must connect with the drivers they follow, so much so that they’ll block off a Saturday night or Sunday to spend at a track.

Dillon knows he took a major step toward that and brought together all fans of Earnhardt’s No. 3 with his win in Charlotte.

“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 (No.) 3 fans.”

Dillon does not compare himself to Earnhardt, only to wanting success while driving the number he made famous.

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

Comments

Elections

Requests for absentee ballots top 9,000 in Rowan

Local

Spencer approves supplemental USDA loan for Park Plaza project

Business

11 locals will make up Empire Redevelopment Task Force

Local

New finance director excited to prove himself, continue on path set by predecessor

Coronavirus

County health officials report four new COVID-19 deaths

Elections

Trump promotes health care ‘vision’ at stop in Charlotte but gaps remain

Crime

Blotter: Woman charged with stealing mom’s dog

Business

Rowan County hires Howden as new finance director

Local

Exhibit about Jim Crow-era travel on display at NC Transportation Museum

Elections

GOP elections board members resign over absentee settlement

Crime

Drive-by shooting injures 24-year-old Salisbury man

Crime

Highway Patrol: Vehicle fled after striking, killing pedestrian on Camp Road

Local

Locals to be inducted into NC Military Veterans Hall of Fame

Business

Fall fun, with a twist: Patterson Farm adjusts to guidelines, offers new version of traditional events

Nation/World

Sayers, Piccolo friendship lives on in ‘Brian’s Song’

Education

Partners in learning passes last year’s special needs fashion show fundraiser with all-virtual event

Education

Shoutouts

Elections

Former history teacher to use ‘working knowledge of the issues’ in state House race

Business

Chamber adds more than 50 new businesses during Total Resource Campaign

Education

School board candidates for Salisbury seat split on consolidation

Education

Virtually no internet: Rural NC families struggle with online access for school-age children

Education

Horizons Unlimited taking learning to students this semester

Nation/World

NTSB: Pilot’s actions likely caused Earnhardt Jr. plane crash

Nation/World

2 Louisville officers shot amid Breonna Taylor protests