Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – What’s next? That’s the question that confronts Austin Dillon after last Sunday’s last-lap victory in the 60th Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most important and prestigious race.
That triumph gave Dillon wins in two of NASCAR’s “majors.” Last year, he picked up his inaugural victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and qualified for the postseason Playoff for the second straight season.
So, again, what’s next, now that Dillon has knocked two gigantic items off the bucket list?
The obvious choice is a series title. As a former champion in the NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series, Dillon is the only driver currently eligible to be the first to complete the trifecta. That’s something the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet already has thought about in depth.
“I definitely have thought about that,” Dillon said on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX). “That’s my goal is to be the first to win all three. I feel like that would be a heck of an accomplishment. I’ve thought about it a lot this week. After you win a huge race like that, what’s next?
“In my eyes, that’s the next goal. That’s what we need to go to work on hard this year, because we’ve already got a great opportunity with the way the Playoffs work as being locked in.”
Daytona is a restrictor-plate superspeedway, and conventional wisdom says the “real” open-motor season starts with the Monster Energy race at Atlanta. Dillon believes his team is prepared to run well at the intermediate speedways, too.
“We’ll just keep rocking it however we can,” Dillon said. “We still have a lot to work on. We want to make this Camaro ZL1 good at all tracks. We’re looking forward to that. Been excited about it.
“It’s a great start to the season. It definitely gets the momentum going. We just need to keep pounding.”
WORDS OF WISDOM—AND MERRIMENT—FROM BUBBA WALLACE’S FAMILY
As Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. was addressing the media last Sunday after a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, a visit to the dais and hug from his mother, Desiree Wallace, brought the driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet to tears.
Wallace had to regain control of his emotions before he could continue.
“Everything about that week is going to stick out,” said Wallace, the highest finishing African-American driver ever in the Great American Race. “I’ll remember that week for the rest of my life of what we did on our off-days, to Media Day, to getting sick, and everything… what I had for breakfast each and every day.
“I’m going to remember it all, just because it was so vivid and just a great week to remember. Everything will stick out, especially me crying.”
Two days after the race, though, Wallace’s mother sent him a text that evoked a guffaw from the driver when he read it aloud on Friday in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center.
“She said, ‘Hey, babe, reading the comments from Sunday’s race,” Wallace said. ‘Wow, I’m so emotional right now. You did win on Sunday. You won the hearts of so many people. That’s better than a first-place finish, because when you do get that first win, oh, my God, there is going to be a riot. LOL.
“‘Love you and so very proud. And then aren’t you glad I decided to have one more child.’”
“That’s my Mom,” Wallace said. “That’s where you see I get it from. Talked to my sister last night. My nephew, he wanted to FaceTime me, but we were traveling back from a dinner, so by the time I called back he was already asleep. They will be back down this weekend – so my good luck charms, I guess.”
CHAIN OF FRIENDSHIP HELPS WALLACE THROUGH SPEEDWEEKS
Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace are close friends, dating to their pre-adolescent days racing Bandoleros at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Blaney and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are close, too. So when Earnhardt perceived Wallace might be feeling the stress from all the attention he was receiving in the lead-up to the Daytona 500, he made a call to Blaney.
“I think it was right when I got down to Daytona, maybe Friday (before qualifying), and I was watching quarter-midget races over there in the infield, and Dale Jr. gives me a call,” Blaney said on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“He was like, ‘Hey, I need you to go call Bubba and calm him down, because I think he was getting really overwhelmed with all the media and the pressure that was kind of being bestowed upon him and we haven’t even got started yet.’”
Blaney had a conversation with Wallace, trying to relax him and advise him not to be bothered by all the distractions.
“It’s a good thing that he’s getting recognized in all forms of TV and entertainment and media and didn’t see it as pressure – (saw) it as a well-deserved opportunity that he got.
“But I think he dealt with it really well and he proved that Sunday when he was able to kind of put all this behind him and just go out there and race.”
Indeed. Wallace finished second to Austin Dillon in the 500. If anything, the media attention has increased exponentially since then.
“I think he did a really good job of dealing with everything on the track and off the track, and I’m pretty proud of him for that,” Blaney said.