Wiedmer: Dillon owes much to McDowells

Wiedmer: Dillon owes much to McDowells

February 23rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Austin Dillon, left, waits for practice to start during a rain delay for the Daytona 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Having just claimed the pole for today's Daytona 500, Austin Dillon could have passed on his earlier commitment to run a dirt track race last Sunday at nearby Volusia Speedway Park.

"Normally, a guy wins the pole at Daytona, he takes the rest of the day off," said Dale McDowell, who taught Dillon to drive on dirt tracks eight years ago at Boyd's Speedway.

"But not Austin. He was on the phone with me at 10 after 6 [p.m.], asking me to leave him a pit bike at the entrance so that he could make the 6:30 race. And he won it. His desire to succeed at every level of racing is pretty impressive."

Should the 23-year-old Dillon win the 500 driving the No. 3 car today, the story of his swift success will be both pretty impressive and pretty emotional for most of NASCAR Nation.

Last driven in Cup competition by the late Dale Earnhardt, the No. 3 was taken off the track by owner Richard Childress after Earnhardt was killed while racing it on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

But with Dillon, Childress's grandson, moving up to the Sprint Cup Series, the patriarch of Richard Childress Racing decided it was time to return No. 3 to competition. Earnhardt drove it to the winner's circle 67 times, including the 1998 Daytona 500.

"Everybody wants to see this number perform well," Dillon told Fox Sports last week. "I love getting in that race car and driving it. Once we get through some of these races here at the beginning of the year, everything will sink in and I'll get comfortable and be able to have some fun."

It's actually the fourth time the No. 3 car has had some fun claiming the pole at Daytona, Buddy Baker having done it in 1969, Ricky Rudd in 1983 and Earnhardt in 1996.

But for Dale McDowell and his brother Shane -- who works for RCR in Welcome, N.C. -- this whole racing week has been fun, beginning with Dale's second- and third-place finishes during Wednesday night racing at Volusia Speedway Park.

"This whole week is really NASCAR's Super Bowl," Dale said. "The only difference is that our sport does it at the first of the year instead of the end of the year."

He first hit a dirt track in the year of 1980 at Cleveland Speedway when he was 14 and a freshman at Rossville High School.

"I finished 10th," the 47-year-old Dale said. "And there weren't more than 15 people in the race."

After graduating from Rossville in 1984 -- Shane, now 40, graduated from Ridgeland High seven years later -- Dale moved up the ladder, competing in ARCA events from 1988 to '92, including races at Atlanta, Talladega and Michigan.

He still races modifieds for the Dillon brothers: Austin and his 21-year-old brother Ty.

But the driving school rather than driving has made both Dale and Shane household names in the NASCAR community. Racers as well known as Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart have come to Dale for dirt driving advice, much of it learned at Boyd's, which Dale just purchased with a partner.

Asked about changes to the track, Dale quickly said, "We're going to bring back Saturday night racing. That's the first thing."

But it's the makeup of the track that McDowell says makes the difference.

"It's clay," he explained. "It's much better to teach on than the soil in North Carolina, which is sandier."

So even though he's often on the road, Dale said, "All the school stuff is still housed in my shop in Chattanooga, and I still live in Chickamauga."

But he'll be at Daytona today, watching young Dillon race from the pole, hopeful that the No. 3 car can find the winner's circle for the first time in 16 years.

"Austin's got a lot of talent," he said. "His first race was at Boyd's Speedway. He's come to Chattanooga a bunch. But he's not just a driver. He's thorough. He doesn't just tell the guys to fix what's wrong. He wants to know why it needs to be fixed, how something works, if he can do something better. When you have someone who takes it that seriously, you always have a chance."

McDowell also knows that Knoxville native Trevor Bayne won this race three years ago as a 20-year-old. Experience doesn't always determine success at Daytona.

"It's anybody's race," Dale said. "It's positioning and luck at Daytona. Bayne didn't have much experience when he won. It definitely wouldn't surprise me if Austin won."

There are those who wonder what it would do to all those Earnhardt fans if Dillon won. They look at No. 3 as more a crypt than a car, the final symbolic resting place of the "Intimidator," arguably the greatest sports nickname ever.

Yet Shane McDowell doesn't see it that way.

"I look at all this differently than the general public," he said Friday. "They don't retire numbers in racing. Richard Petty's number (43) is still out there, for instance."

NASCAR may be national now, its races staged from New Hampshire to California, at least a few of its star drivers born far north and west of the Mason-Dixon line in places such as Wisconsin (Matt Kenseth), Washington (Kasey Kahne) and Nevada (Kyle Busch).

But its roots remain as firmly planted in backwoods Southern culture as moonshine, snake handlers and Saturday night broadcasts of the Grand Ol' Opry played on a crackling car radio carrying AM stations only.

And nowhere does respect for the past remain as important as the South. So there is something both poetic and personal, if not downright cathartic about Dillon, a North Carolina native, sitting on Daytona's pole today in the No. 3 car owned by his grandfather and made famous by Earnhardt.

Beyond that, a 7-year-old Dillon was photographed with Earnhardt in the Daytona winner's circle in 1998, and when he won the pole last week, Richard Petty shook his hand.

"He's got the crew, he's got the car and he's got the talent," Shane said. "But getting through the day, dodging those crashes, is tough. It takes some luck to win at Daytona."

Yet should that luck somehow side with Dillon this afternoon, don't be surprised if he's shaking the McDowell brothers' hands by day's end, a student thanking his teachers for lessons well-learned.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com