Austin Dillon returns the 3 to victory lane

(Getty Images)

CONCORD, N.C. – For the first time since Talladega in the fall of 2000, the iconic number 3 visited a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victory lane. Austin Dillon played a fuel mileage strategy to perfection early Monday morning saving just enough fuel to hold off Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. to score his first career Cup victory winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Dillon said. “I can’t believe it. I was just really focused on those last laps.”

The number 3 Chevy owned by Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing team was once famously campaigned by the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. who died it the end of the 2001 Daytona 500.  Dillon, grandson of team owner Richard Childress, took the number during his rise through the NASCAR ranks urging his grandfather to bring the number back to the Cup series fulltime in 2014.

“Unbelievable and to have my grandson Austin Dillon,” an emotional Childress said. “Everybody, I just can’t thank enough people.  I just can’t stop thanking everyone and I know my great friend and everybody here Dale Earnhardt is smiling down tonight.”

Dillon wasn’t a factor in NASCAR’s longest race, made longer by a nearly 1:40 minute stoppage for rain. It was Martin Truex Jr. who led the most laps 233, for the second time in the last three races. In the end fuel mileage decided the race.

Despite eight cautions on the night, the races final stages became a fuel mileage gamble. Denny Hamlin running in the top ten elected to pit under green on lap 366.  Truex pitted a lap later bringing a group of lead pack cars with him that included Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth.  With enough fuel to race to the end, seven teams decided to roll the dice. Those teams were led by Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Chris Buescher, Paul Menard, and Trevor Bayne.

With fresher tires, Truex began making up time on those who had stayed out.  In the closing laps Truex, closely pursued by Busch began gaining positions.  With seven laps to go, Truex was third behind Johnson and Dillon.  Johnson ran out of fuel two laps from the end leaving only Dillon. On the final lap as Busch drove by Truex for second, Dillon saved just enough fuel to score the win.

“We had a shot at it again,” Truex lamented.  “Third year in a row we led the most laps.  Felt like we had a shot to win.  Two out of three he we lost it on fuel mileage.  That’s tough to swallow.

“All in all it was a great night,” he added. “We’ll keep coming back with them, hopefully get some more wins.”

There was no celebratory burnout for Dillon; his Chevy ran our of fuel as he rolled back across the line. Kenseth was fourth behind Truex, with Denny Hamlin fifth.

“I was just trying to be patient with the No. 48.” Dillon said. “I could see him saving. I thought I’d saved enough early where I could attack at the end, but I tried to wait as long as possible. And when he ran out, I figured I’d go back in and save where I was lifting and it worked out. I ran out at the line and it gurgled all around just to do one little spin and push it back to Victory Lane.”

Two favorites were taken out in the opening laps when at the start of lap 19, Jeffery Earnhardt appeared to lose an engine exiting turn 3. In front of him on the front stretch, Chase Elliott suddenly had flames burst out from his hood and he slowed; Brad Keselowski couldn’t slow in time slid in the oil form the blown engine and plowed into Elliott. Both cars were done for the night. Replays showed that something appeared to come out from under the back of the Earnhardt car and possible hit the engine of Elliott’s car.

Kyle Larson, the points leader coming into the race, suffered several set backs. After missing qualifying Thursday, Larson started Sunday’s race in 39th. He fought his way forward and ran as high fifth. He hit the wall twice however, the second time on lap 292 causing enough damage to force him to the garage and left him with a 33rd place finish.  Truex leaves Charlotte with the points lead.

“I got really loose into (Turn) 3 and hit the wall and got a lot of damage and the tire started to go down and then exploded in (Turn) 1,” Larson said. “I just hate it that I made a mistake there in Turn 3 and got in the wall. I was not even running hard up there. I just got loose and then I hit it and it ruined our day. I’m hoping to hold onto the point lead and then go to Dover next week and try to do better.”

Kurt Busch was sixth, Erik Jones seventh, Kevin Harvick eighth, with Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top 10.

The series heads to Dover for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism next Sunday at 1:00 p.m. ET with live coverage on Fox Sports 1.

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.