Austin Dillon intends to honor Dale Earnhardt’s legacy and keep his memory alive in No. 3 car

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Austin Dillon has been preparing for Feb. 23 for pretty much his entire racing life.

Not only will he kick off the start of his first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series that day in the 56th Daytona 500, Dillon more importantly will bring back the legendary No. 3 onto the Cup racing scene.

It was 13 years ago that Dale Earnhardt last raced the No. 3, tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. No other driver has competed in the Cup series in the No. 3 since then.

Dillon is the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, for whom Earnhardt won six of his seven Cup championships driving the No. 3.

To his credit, Dillon has gone out of his way to tell media, fans and pretty much anyone else that will listen that he’s not trying to step into Earnhardt’s shoes, nor is he trying to discredit Earnhardt’s famous racing number.

“Dale was so important in driving that number,” Dillon said at Thursday’s NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “He was the guy that made that number what it is today. But Dale Earnhardt is Dale Earnhardt not only because of the number, but because he was a hero and created so many things for this sport.  The number for me, hopefully I can continue the legacy that it has and keep on moving on with it.”

Dillon has driven the No. 3 in various forms of racing that he’s competed in, including winning the Camping World Truck Series in 2011 and the Nationwide Series championship last season – both coming in rides that sported the infamous number on the doors and hood.

In a sense, even though the No. 3 was Earnhardt’s number in Sprint Cup, it’s also been Dillon’s number throughout his career for nearly 20 years, ever since he got behind the wheel of a go-kart 20 years ago.

Admittedly, Dillon did initially give thought to perhaps not driving the No. 3 once he reached the pinnacle of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup division.

“There’s always thoughts of it,” he said. “I feel like you go through times, and you don’t know what to go through.  My family, RCR (Richard Childress Racing), all the people there around us, hearing it from Dale Jr. (who gave Dillon his blessing to drive the No. 3) and people like that, is very influential I feel like to where we’re at today.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve looked at other numbers and stuff, too.  It wasn’t like, ‘That’s the number I want to run. Bam, bam, that’s how I was going to do it or nothing.’ We were very respectful in the fact it was up to my grandfather and the people that were around that number the longest.

“So I’m not a kid that says, ‘Hey, this is what I want, this is what I’m going to get.’ I’ve never been that way. Hopefully, I’m never portrayed that way. I’m a very respectful person and look to the history of the sport. I feel fortunate I’m getting this opportunity, though.”

Among other numbers Dillon considered at one point or other were the 21, 2 and 41 – all of which are taken by Trevor Bayne, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick this season – and even the 33, as an alternative to the No. 3, much like Dale Earnhardt Jr. transitioned from the No. 8 while driving at Dale Earnhardt Inc., to the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports.

Even though Earnhardt left us 13 years ago, his image remains ever-present in the sport, particularly around Daytona with fans still having stickers or wearing clothing to honor their fallen hero. Even in death, Earnhardt merchandise remains a hot seller at souvenir stands and stores.

“The legend of Dale has lived on for a long time and is going to continue to live on forever,” Dillon said.  “Dale Earnhardt is not just famous because of the number.  He is Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody’s mind, including myself.  Dale is going to fly here forever.  That’s the coolest thing about everything that’s going on.”

Earnhardt’s mother, Martha, said in a nationally televised interview Wednesday that she had ‘mixed feelings’ about seeing the No. 3 back on the track.

Dillon understands those feelings and is doing everything he can to honor Dale Earnhardt’s memory and legacy.

“The biggest thing is being respectful to all the family that is involved and also just taking this opportunity and hoping that fans are embracing it the right way,” Dillon said. “We’re trying to continue the legacy of the No. 3.  I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.

“I think we respect everything that the Earnhardt family has to say.  Dale Jr. and everybody has been very supportive of it.  It’s been a good thing so far.  Everything’s been great.  Just continue to move on with what we’re going with.

“I think there was something about the number and the color.  That is one thing my grandfather said from the beginning, that we weren’t going to have it black.  So luckily the Cheerios car and Dow, everybody, our sponsors, have some black in the color with their sponsor, exactly not a percentage that’s more than 50 percent.  I think the most we’ve got on a paint scheme is 60 percent.  That is one thing.  But we’re definitely respectful and going to keep it color sensitive.”

Fans are expected to honor the return of the three on race day, most likely extending three fingers on the third lap in Earnhardt’s memory. And while Dillon knows there will be some who will forever consider it sacrilege that the No. 3 is back racing, he hopes those critics will at least give him a chance to honor the number and Earnhardt with his performance.

“Everybody’s got their own opinion,” Dillon said. “I feel like hopefully we can win them over as time goes on. That’s all you can do.

“Hopefully they’re open enough to take a look at everything that we’re doing. I think as far as performance and moving forward, hopefully we can win them over.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA Bristol: Schumacher, Capps, Coughlin Jr. take home wins

Tony Schumacher, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Ron Capps. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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You’ve heard of classic rock, right?

Well, Sunday’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway was classic drag racing – old school style, you might say.

Drivers who have combined for 14 national championships between them emerged at the top of the heap, with eight-time champ Tony Schumacher taking Top Fuel honors, former champ Ron Capps took Funny Car honors and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbing Pro Stock honors.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher earned his sixth career win at Thunder Valley, as well as his first win overall of 2018.

Known as “The Sarge” due to his U.S. Army sponsorship, Schumacher marched through the field to reach the Winner’s Circle.

Schumacher (3.946 seconds at 313.58 mph) defeated Mike Salinas in what would prove to be Schumacher’s third final round of the season and the 150th of his career.

He now is 6-2 in career final round showings at Thunder Valley.

“We have had little things bite us this season, but we knew we had to overcome adversity and we knew we had a great car that was capable of winning,” Schumacher said. “I’m proud of my team for sticking to our plan, and I know our team is going to be a factor for the rest of the season.”

Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier in the race and defeated Terry McMillen, Pat Dakin, points leader Steve Torrence and Salinas to take the win.

It was the first runner-up finish of Salinas’ career, defeating Leah Pritchett, No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican and Scott Palmer before meeting Schumacher in the final.

In Funny Car, like Schumacher, Capps won for the first time this season on the NHRA national event circuit. It was also his second consecutive win at Bristol, having won last year’s event there.

Capps earned the 59th win of his career with a pass of 4.234 seconds at 296.37 mph, defeating Bob Tasca III.

Capps also earned Don Schumacher his 300th career nitro victory as a team owner.

“This is a great facility, and when you roll into this place you get a special feeling,” Capps said. “Getting to the Winner’s Circle at a track like this is even more special because you feel like you really had to earn it, and this weekend I am proud of what my team accomplished in some tough conditions.”

Capps went to the top of the Funny Car mountain starting from the No. 11 qualifying position, defeating 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, 2017 Funny Car national champ Robert and J.R. Todd before defeating Tasca in the final round.

Capps qualified 11th for the event before defeating John Force, defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and J.R. Todd on his path to Winner’s Circle.

Tasca was the No. 4 qualifier and defeated Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and points leader Courtney Force to reach his first final round since at Seattle in 2013.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin earned his second win in the last three races. It took an effort of 6.709 seconds at 205.10 mph to defeat points leader Greg Anderson in the final round.

“My team has made some transitions this season and now we are running much faster, and it feels pretty great to be on the right track now this season,” Coughlin Jr. said. “Winning at Thunder Valley is historic and it feels fantastic, so to be crowned a champion here is really special.”

Coughlin qualified No. 2 and beat Tommy Lee, Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman en route to overtaking Anderson in the final round.

Anderson now has two runner-up finishes this season, but continues to seek his first win of 2018.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule moves on to its 12th race of the season – the halfway mark of the 2018 campaign – next weekend at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, from June 21-24.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Tony Schumacher; 2. Mike Salinas; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Scott Palmer; 5. Pat Dakin; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Clay Millican; 9. Brittany Force; 10. Leah Pritchett; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Dom Lagana; 14. Bill Litton; 15. Terry Totten; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. Courtney Force; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. Robert Hight; 6. Jack Beckman; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 8. Cruz Pedregon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jonnie Lindberg; 12. Shawn Langdon; 13. Jim Campbell; 14. Matt Hagan; 15. John Force; 16. Jeff Diehl.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Tanner Gray; 4. Drew Skillman; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Tim Freeman; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Jason Line; 10. Bo Butner; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. John Gaydosh Jr.; 13. Wally Stroupe; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Deric Kramer; 16. Tommy Lee.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, 3.946 seconds, 313.58 mph def. Mike Salinas, 5.251 seconds, 152.18 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.234, 296.37 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.709, 205.10 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.741, 205.07.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Mike Salinas, 4.023, 295.53 def. Leah Pritchett, 4.011, 287.72; Scott Palmer, 4.017, 304.39 def. Bill Litton, 4.172, 261.07; Clay Millican, 4.018, 295.14 def. Terry Totten, 4.542, 182.58; Tony Schumacher, 3.917, 316.82 def. Terry McMillen, 5.112, 141.40; Antron Brown, 3.897, 316.82 def. Richie Crampton, 4.057, 297.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.998, 286.38 def. Brittany Force, 3.942, 307.51; Steve Torrence, 3.970, 303.71 def. Shawn Reed, 4.018, 283.25; Pat Dakin, 4.015, 307.30 def. Dom Lagana, 4.107, 272.12; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 4.035, 299.20 def. Millican, 9.938, 76.57; Palmer, 4.067, 302.41 def. Kalitta, 4.292, 230.92; Schumacher, 4.028, 288.64 def. Dakin, 4.041, 298.14; Torrence, 4.232, 253.33 def. Brown, 5.090, 155.65; SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 4.042, 301.07 def. Palmer, 4.356, 211.89; Schumacher, 4.038, 297.02 def. Torrence, 4.104, 254.04; FINAL — Schumacher, 3.946, 313.58 def. Salinas, 5.251, 152.18.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.757, 227.23 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 5.978, 124.51; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.169, 307.65 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.382, 262.18; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.213, 300.26 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.362, 252.61; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.133, 303.09 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.183, 289.82; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.582, 229.00 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 5.030, 159.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.243, 296.37 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.824, 128.57; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.283, 281.30 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.569, 266.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.253, 291.26 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.381, 142.06; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 4.197, 298.14 def. Johnson Jr., 5.139, 158.45; Tasca III, 4.233, 292.90 def. Pedregon, 5.757, 126.33; Todd, 4.203, 295.92 def. Beckman, 4.333, 277.49; Capps, 4.208, 299.33 def. Hight, 4.233, 300.73; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.242, 298.93 def. Todd, 4.372, 285.65; Tasca III, 4.219, 298.60 def. C. Force, 4.271, 286.62; FINAL — Capps, 4.234, 296.37 def. Tasca III, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.739, 204.45 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.776, 204.45; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.736, 205.32 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.729, 204.88 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.726, 203.95; Tim Freeman, Camaro, 6.787, 202.58 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.823, 201.94; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.754, 205.13 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Chevrolet Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.715, 204.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 9.845, 93.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.716, 204.35 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 7.027, 176.70; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.719, 205.10 def. Tommy Lee, Camaro, Broke – No Show; QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.789, 204.94 def. Freeman, Foul – Red Light; Coughlin, 6.740, 205.26 def. McGaha, 16.733, 48.09; Anderson, 6.723, 204.73 def. Nobile, 6.755, 204.29; Skillman, 6.727, 203.98 def. Enders, 6.743, 204.54; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.750, 204.51 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Anderson, 6.768, 204.91 def. Gray, 6.764, 205.19; FINAL — Coughlin, 6.709, 205.10 def. Anderson, 6.741, 205.07.

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UPDATED POINTS STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 896; 2. Clay Millican, 786; 3. Tony Schumacher, 760; 4. Doug Kalitta, 717; 5. Leah Pritchett, 663; 6. Antron Brown, 588; 7. (tie) Brittany Force, 552; Terry McMillen, 552; 9. Scott Palmer, 461; 10. Mike Salinas, 421.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 937; 2. Jack Beckman, 736; 3. Robert Hight, 717; 4. J.R. Todd, 694; 5. Ron Capps, 693; 6. Matt Hagan, 669; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 606; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 508; 9. John Force, 502; 10. Bob Tasca III, 500.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 823; 2. Tanner Gray, 768; 3. Vincent Nobile, 758; 4. Erica Enders, 738; 5. Drew Skillman, 679; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 671; 7. Chris McGaha, 659; 8. Bo Butner, 642; 9. Deric Kramer, 627; 10. Jason Line, 569.

Follow @JerryBonkowski