The annual Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race on NASCAR’s schedule, and the 2017 running of the event was certainly no exception. Taking the green flag at 6:18 p.m. ET, wet weather and multiple incidents would cause the race to last over six hours and finish after midnight.
However, when the checkered flag flew on that long and soggy evening, it was Austin Dillon and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team that was celebrating a historic victory.
“It feels amazing,” said Dillon. “What an unbelievable night with an exciting finish at the end. I don’t think this has sunk in yet – that we won the Coke 600. I’m just so happy for our team. I really believed in these guys, we have everything we need to win. We proved tonight that we could get it done.”
The win was not only the first for Dillon in 133 Cup Series starts, it was also the first time the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet had been to Victory Lane since Dale Earnhardt scored the win at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2000.
“Like Austin said, it hasn’t sank in, but I didn’t really get incredibly emotional because I was still in shock, I think,” said team owner Richard Childress. “When I looked up and seen the No.3 at the top of the board, at the Coke 600, knowing my grandson was in it, how special it was for all the fans. What a special weekend here for everybody that’s gave so much to give every one of us the opportunity in this country we have. It makes it even more special.
“I know Dale was smiling down on us tonight with that big grin and bushy mustache,” said Childress. “He would be proud.”
As the laps clicked away late in the night, the 600-mile endurance race was coming down to pit strategy and fuel mileage. Working with crew chief Justin Alexander – who had made the transition from the RCR Xfinity Series team to the No. 3 Cup Series program earlier that week – Dillon and his team of engineers decided to stretch their fuel mileage and go for the win.
“We knew as soon as we pitted there with, I don’t know how many, 67 or something to go, we knew we were 2.7 (laps) short,” said Alexander. “When you figure that out, you have one of two choices. You can figure out how much you need to save, how many laps you need to save, or you can run hard and hope there’s a caution comes out.”
With Dillon racing inside the top 10, Alexander told his driver he would need to start saving fuel. Luckily, the No. 3 Dow Chevrolet got great fuel mileage throughout the entire event and Dillon did not have to back off the pace very much to save the fuel. When Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel with two laps to go, Dillon inherited the lead with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in hot pursuit battling for second.
The gamble paid off and as Dillon came off the fourth corner he took the checkered flag in dramatic fashion to give RCR its second win of the 2017 season.
“My grandfather has done everything he can to give us the best we can get,” said Dillon. “Sometimes I feel like we’re the small team out there trying to get everything we can. Tonight proved that 600‑mile race, when it came down to it, we had everything we needed. It just feels amazing.”
Dillon and the No. 3 team return to Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend as defending Coca-Cola 600 champions and current Daytona 500 champions. Despite that success, Dillon is looking for more this weekend with race sponsor Coca-Cola on the No. 3 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
“I’m really pumped about the 600,” he said. “It’s a long race for us and obviously coming back being the defending winner hopefully we can do it this year again. If fuel mileage is the way we do it, we will do it that way again, it doesn’t matter, if we can get back to Victory Lane again this year it would be great. But, I’ve always felt comfortable here at Charlotte in any series I’ve ran … Anytime I come to this track my confidence is high and I feel good about it.”