Early Monday morning, the world of NASCAR took a giant, collective sigh. A finish 17 years in the making. Not since Dale Jr. broke his long winless streak at Michigan has one track erupted as much as Charlotte did when Austin Dillon took the 3 car across the finish line to win the Coca Cola 600.
After 3 years many were starting to doubt the talent and ability of Austin Dillon. Many would say that he is only there because of Richard Childress, but knowing all that I do, I know he had to earn it, every step of the way. The question to me was, “When will he win?” Never, “Can he win?”
For these 3 years I saw not just Austin, but his mechanics and pit crews and fans wait. The waiting is always the hardest part. Patience was being tested. After Austin’s second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crew chief change, many people openly questioned his ability behind the wheel… again.
Charlotte was right there, looking us all right in the eye. The 600, the longest and most demanding race in NASCAR. As the engines fire and cars roll off you could hear a calm in the voices of Andy Houston, Justin Alexander, and Austin Dillon. The early race laps clicked off and Mother Nature then decided, this race wasn’t long enough. The rains came and changed everything.
When the cars rolled off again the best thing happened, everyone on the radio, was laughing and joking and having fun. That’s when I knew, something special was about to happen. I knew, there was a chance.
Austin ran in the top 15 the rest of the night. After the final pit stop it was all fuel mileage, saving, saving every drop. Needing to save 3 laps of fuel, having to lift 200+ feet early every single corner. This would be no easy feat. This would try Austin’s patience, it would try Andy’s patience, it would try fans patience.
Tensions built, it was all coming to a head. The hardest thing to do is run slower when you have a fast car, knowing you have had the fastest car on multiple runs throughout the night. Fans want to see you go fast, you want to go fast. You can’t. You have to run your race. Run a strategy that requires, patience.
Five laps to go, Jimmie Johnson started stretching it out. Martin Truex Jr. coming, Kyle Busch coming, Austin Dillon kept his pace. Four laps to go I lose my patience and I’m quoting “Hidalgo” and tweeting, and screaming to myself, “Let ‘er Buck,”
Three laps to go, Jimmie Johnson has saved a lot of fuel and starting to pull away. The Toyota contingent has tires and fuel and they are running us down. We have to make this, come on, we saved enough fuel. Justin Alexander makes the call, it’s time to go! Andy tells Austin to pick up pace!
Two to go, Johnson runs out of fuel. Austin has picked up pace, he has taken the lead! At the edge of my seat I cringe, Austin backed off again! Those Toyotas are coming!
Last lap, my head is in my hands. I’m praying, I’m hoping, I just want to see this, I need to see this. We have waited so long!
“Come on bud, come on bud, we just won our first Cup race. WOOHOO!” Andy Houston’s voice cracked in my ears, listening to the radio.
And then come the tears. Tears of sheer joy. Tears of happiness. Seventeen years since Dale went to Victory Lane. Three years since the 3 car returned to the track in NASCAR’s top series. All the trials, all the waiting, seeing all the frustration… it is over. It’s over and nobody can take that away.
“I keep thinking, ‘Please don’t run out.’ I was watching margins to Truex because he had fresh tires. Coming through [turn] 3 and 4 all I could think about was Jr. in the 2011 600 running out and I didn’t want that to happen to Austin. Once we got off 4 I knew he had it and I was jumping for joy!” ~Jake F.
“Man our car is fast, but that 48 is really saving. We can catch him if he is saving! Man the 18 and 78 are coming. Tears of joy, the 48 is out! New leader… THAT’S US! I’m trying to hold back my emotions, this is what we need. Not just RCR. Dale’s fans! WE NEED THIS!!! WE WON! WE HAVE COME FULL CIRCLE! 17 years!” ~John L.
“I’m hoping we have enough fuel! The 48 is out! The pressure is setting in. White flag came out! Toyotas are gaining. I hope Austin can clinch this race! The Checkers are out! Ol’ Glory carried the number 3 to victory! What a race! I will never forget this. It’s been 17 years since the 3 was in Victory Lane and it looked good there!” ~Tim W.
“It’s everything you work for, right in front of you. The reason we leave our families behind for 38 weekends a year. I’m sitting there, pacing, thinking if we can just finish this thing off with a win, we have done something special. Not just special for ourselves, but RCR and NASCAR. I mean, this is the 3 car! A car some thought would never go back to Victory Lane after the 2001 Daytona 500. It was just an adrenaline rush like no other. Everything goes out the window, there isn’t a conscious thought to be had. Just SHEER joy! 24 hours later all those thoughts come back and I can reflect on them, savor the moment that much more.” ~Josh Sisco, mechanic, 3 car
It is all over, all the waiting, all the doubts, all the worries.
It’s all over, but the crying.
Bring on the tears.