DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team decided to steal a page from the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, it would be entirely appropriate.
The theme song of the world champion Pirates was “We Are Family,” a contemporaneous hit by Sister Sledge. In 1979, the close-knit underdog Pittsburgh team upset the Baltimore Orioles to win the World Series.
Coincidentally, 1979 also marked the first appearance of a rookie named Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500. The seven-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer would spend 19 years-with team owners Rod Osterlund, Bud Moore and Richard Childress-trying in vain to win the Great American Race.
Earnhardt’s breakthrough victory finally came in 1998, and when he celebrated in Victory Lane after the emotional win, Childress and his two grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon, were there with him. Austin was seven years old at the time. Ty was five.
Twenty years and three days after Earnhardt triumphed at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Austin Dillon returned to Victory Lane as the winner of a rough-and-tumble Daytona 500.
Dillon started from the rear of the field in a backup car and drove a patient race-until he tagged then-leader Aric Almirola on the final lap-sacrificing points for a chance to win the most important and prestigious prize, the Harley J. Earl trophy.
Childress and Earnhardt were best friends, but Dillon is flesh and blood, the son of Mike Dillon and Childress’ daughter Tina.
For Childress, comparing the two victories was difficult.
“They’re both so different,” Childress told the NASCAR Wire Service at the Daytona 500 Champion’s Breakfast at the speedway on Monday morning. “I knew how important ’98 was for Dale to win the Daytona 500. We had been so close so many times, and it wouldn’t have been right if he didn’t have it on his resume.
“That was one of the most special wins I’ve ever been involved with. And then last night, to see my grandson come across there 20 years later and win the Daytona 500, it’s hard to beat blood. …”
With a catch in his voice, Childress let the words hang and put his arm around Dillon’s shoulders.
But this Daytona 500 was not simply about immediate family. Dillon is the first champion in recent memory to sit in the winner’s chair in the Bill France Room at the speedway and single out each of his team members by name and recite their specific racing histories. And make no mistake, they are all racers.
Rear tire changer Jake Lind, for example, is the son of Will Lind, the rear tire changer for the “Flying Aces” crew that dominated the sport with Earnhardt in the 1980s and 1990s.
As racers are wont to do, Dillon’s crew celebrated the Daytona 500 victory into the wee hours at Tijuana Flats, an establishment owned by one of Dillon’s friends. The large “extended family” of Dillon’s cohorts is called the “Wolfpack,” and after the party died down at Tijuana Flats, the entourage paid a visit to Daytona Hardcore Tattoo to get inked with the image of a wolf howling at the moon.
Dillon got a different tattoo.
“I got a tattoo last night,” Dillon acknowledged. “It says ‘Daytona 500 Champ’ on it-it’s pretty cool, and you’ll never be able to see it either. …
“It hurt. It feels OK this morning, but one of the boys smacked me on the butt when I came over here, and I said, ‘Easy, guys.'”
Crew chief Justin Alexander opted out of a tattoo but made a promise.
“If we win a championship, I’ll get one on my face, if you want,” Alexander told Dillon.
Given the momentum Dillon and his team carry out of Daytona, and given the cohesiveness of this tight-knit racing “family,” don’t be surprised if you see a crew chief on pit road with a “3” on his cheek when next year’s Daytona 500 rolls around.
— NASCAR Wire Service —