Austin and Ty Dillon: Brothers With Different Stories
In virtually any media piece covering the future of Richard Childress Racing, they are always linked together. They are “the Dillon brothers,” the grandsons of team owner Richard Childress. Yet while they are brothers, they aren't twins. Austin Dillon will be joining the Sprint Cup series next year, and he's earned the right. He's shown a remarkable maturity for his age—particularly in bearing the burden of returning NASCAR's most famous number to the track. Meanwhile, last week's truck race showed that Ty Dillon simply isn't ready for the bright lights just yet. Fans and media alike need to remember that just because they share a last name doesn't mean they are the same person.
For those who missed it, Harvick and Ty Dillon were racing for position at the end of NASCAR's Camping World Truck series race on Saturday. Dillon had the faster truck, but Harvick was holding tight to the favored inside line to prevent the pass. With a handful of laps to go, Dillon bumped Harvick's truck going into the turn and then wrecked them both (along with championship points leader Matt Crafton). Dillon then proceeded to channel his inner Kyle Busch by attempting to wreck Harvick's truck under caution multiple times before pulling into pit road for repairs. The fact that Dillon, despite several efforts, couldn't manage to turn Harvick's truck around was perhaps the funniest part of the whole thing.
Harvick's post-race interview was clearly the product of frustration, both with the wreck that just occurred and a season spent in limbo pending his departure for Stewart-Haas next season. Like many before, he lumped both of the Dillon brothers together. He called them a pair of rich kids with no respect and suggested that they were the reason he was leaving RCR. How much of that is truth and how much is frustration we'll never know. Before Saturday's race, Harvick publicly had no issue with either Dillon.
Yet the wreck itself is just one more example of Ty Dillon's immaturity. While he had Matt Crafton crashing into his back bumper, Dillon almost gleefully took credit post-race for dumping Harvick. Never mind the fact that turning Harvick wrecked the #3 truck as well and put a dagger into Dillon's fading championship hopes. Oh, and who cares about the caution flag flying? We've got a score to settle! Because wrecking someone under the yellow worked out so well for Kyle Busch, right? It only cost him an entire race weekend and nearly his sponsor M&Ms.
It's one thing to have a wreck near the end of a short track race. Those happen to nearly every driver at some point. Laps are short and so are the tempers. No one is willing to give an inch and a slower car can hold up numerous faster cars just by sticking to the preferred line. So for a wreck to occur, even between teammates, is no big deal. The checkered flag is just a few laps away and everyone on the lead lap is trying to get as much as they can before it falls. The pressure is even greater near the front with a race win on the line.
In fact, that very situation points out just how hypocritical Ty Dillon is being in this case. It was less than two months ago that Dillon was wrecked by Chase Elliott at CTMP while racing for the win. After that race, Dillon gave an angry post-race interview about how “you've got to show respect,” and that he hoped Chase would run the following week because “he won't finish the race.” Or in other words, it's a cardinal sin and a sign of disrespect to turn someone even while racing for the win on the final lap. But it's perfectly fine to turn a teammate around with more than ten laps to go, then chase their vehicle around the track for a full lap under caution trying to turn them again. That's the respectful thing to do?
Ty Dillon on the Receiving End of a Late-Race Bump and Run
Yet it's unfair to tar Austin Dillon with the same brush given what he's done so far. Austin ran his first Nationwide race in 2008 at 18 years of age (Ty was 20 when he ran his first) and continued to run spot races at that level through 2011. In 2010, Austin returned the famed #3 to regular NASCAR competition at the Camping World truck series level. Despite the crushing weight of history that the number brought, Austin proved up to the challenge. He won four races and scored 17 top-five finishes in his two full truck seasons, winning the series championship in 2011. The following year, Austin moved up to the Nationwide level- winning two races and finishing third in the season standings. While he hasn't won yet this year, that fact is more a statement of the Penske-Gibbs dominance than it is a slip by Austin. He sits first in the standings and has a real shot to take home the Nationwide title three weeks from now.
The very fact that NASCAR Nation is at ease with Austin driving the #3 should provide some clue as to how he's handled himself to date. The idea of anyone other than an Earnhardt driving the #3 would have been heresy only a few years ago. While no official policy forbade using it, the general consensus was that the number should be held out unless Earnhardt Jr. himself wanted to drive the #3. But aside from a handful of Nationwide appearances, Junior seems perfectly content to let someone else shoulder that burden. He's made his own name under the #8/88 over the past 15 years and likely feels enough pressure to carry on the Earnhardt legacy. There's no reason to add to it by driving his father's car, as well.
Austin Dillon has driven that number since the very beginning of his racing career. He says that it's an homage to both Earnhardt and to his grandfather, Childress. Richard drove the #3 for several years before climbing out of the cockpit during the 1981 season. The #3 has meant the world to the Childress family regardless of who was behind the wheel. Austin literally grew up around the Earnhardt team and watched the number tragically depart the track when he was only 11 years old.
He also clearly respects the number itself. While he's run a handful of Sprint Cup races for RCR, he's yet to pull out the #3 for his car. When asked about it earlier this year, Dillon said that if they were going to do it, he wanted to run that number all year long. Or in other words, while a good chunk of change stood to be made from merchandising a one-off return, that was less important than the legacy he would be invoking. Austin wasn't willing to disrespect that legacy for a one-off event; if the #3 is to return to NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, fans around the country deserve the opportunity to see it.
While his handling of the #3 is one sign, it's not the only one of Austin's maturity. Towards the end of last season, Denny Hamlin hit him with comments similar to Harvick's, claiming Austin crowded him on the track and had his ride solely because of his name. Unlike Ty's fiery response on Saturday, Austin took the high road and essentially ignored Hamlin. His recent response to Harvick was also far more thoughtful and measured than Ty's. He admitted that the comments stung, showing a personal side that many drivers would have hidden. But then he went on to note the things Harvick has done for RCR and for him personally, ending by wishing Kevin well in the future.
Austin Dillon cannot control who his family is. It's not his fault that he was born into the Childress family and has had racing opportunities that others will not receive. It's impossibly unfair to judge him for who his grandfather is. All we can do is judge him—and brother Ty—for what they do with that opportunity. Do they bring credit to their family and to their name? Do they represent themselves well on and off the track? Are they making the most of the equipment and the platform they've been given? Most of all, those questions must be answered individually. Writing a story about “the Dillon boys” is not and never will be a single character play. For good and ill, they are their own men and that story must be a tale of two Dillons instead of just one.