Brooklyn, Mich. — NASCAR Hall of Famer and legendary car owner Richard Childress took media members for a lap or two around Michigan International Speedway’s two-mile track Sunday morning in the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 pace car in celebration of 50 years of memories at the site.
Then, the 72-year-old Childress sat down and watched his driver — and grandson — Austin Dillon finish fourth in the Consumers Energy 400, actually leading with 23 laps remaining while competing in the new Chevy Camaro ZL1 chassis that he hopes will continue to produce strong runs in the playoffs, which begin Sept. 16 in Las Vegas.
Dillon already is locked into the playoffs with his win in the series’ Super Bowl, the season-opening Daytona 500. Chase Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen last weekend was Chevy’s second win of the season in the Chevy Camaro ZL1 that was introduced to the NASCAR Cup series this season.
“I’m sure people will say they’re kind of the underdog or whatever, but we feel good about some of our chances,” Childress said of the upcoming playoffs. “We’ve worked hard trying to put ourselves in a timing position for us to really stand out when it comes time.”
Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski — the 2012 NASCAR Cup series champion — noticed Richard Childress Racing’s improvement Sunday.
“I was really impressed with how well Austin and Ryan Newman ran this weekend,” said Keselowski, noticing Richard Childress Racing’s new chassis. “It would be foolish to keep something great in your pocket. It’s time to bring it out.”
Said Dillon: “We’ve got the 'We are Innovators' Chevy this weekend. Man, we had a fast car. I got to battle with (Kevin) Harvick there and that was awesome. I’m so proud of the guys for having a car capable of doing that.
“We were kind of in position that if something happened to the No. 4 (Harvick) we could win the race. With two (laps) to go, I went into (Turn) 3 and I kind of missed the corner. When I came down the straightaway, it was just shaking like either the tire was unraveling or it was a loose wheel. But, I didn’t want to lose this great finish we had in front of us, so we brought it home with a top five at least.”
Childress last competed at MIS as a driver in 1981, the same year Dale Earnhardt made his debut while driving for Richard Childress Racing. Earnhardt was a seven-time Cup series champion — matched only by Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson — and earned six with Childress.
Childress is still enjoying the business as car owner of the No. 3 Chevrolet — made famous by Earnhardt — with Dillon behind the wheel and his son-in-law, Mike Dillon, as Richard Childress Racing general manager.
“That’s the coolest part of the whole sport, having the family around,” Childress said. “It’s definitely a family sport, and to have our family involved in it — my son-in-law, my wife, my daughter, all of them are all still involved so that’s what makes it really, really good. I’m really proud to have them, and proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.
“We gave them the opportunity, but when they started driving I said now you guys are going to have to make something of it. That’s what we did.”
Byron, Mich., native Erik Jones failed in his chance to continue his momentum while competing in the No. 20 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Jones, 22, entered the day on a run in which he finished seventh or better in six of his previous seven races, including a win at Daytona in early July that locked him into the playoffs.
Jones got loose on the eighth lap, resulting in a spin and run through the grass. Luckily, he escaped damage to his car.
Then, Jones made his way back to sixth before making contact with Ryan Blaney with 35 laps left in Stage 2 and finished 13th.
“It just wasn’t a very good day right from the start,” Jones said. “I spun out early and had some contact late and spun us out again. We were fighting from behind all day. Our stuff wasn’t as great as it was, but we made the most of it. It wasn’t a top-10; that would have been an extremely stellar day.”
Wallace sets the pace
Former Pistons great Ben Wallace enjoyed his day as honorary pace car driver at MIS Sunday.
“I drove the pace car and it was the ultimate experience, just being out there and around the track, and knowing these guys are going to be on this track at 220 miles-per-hour," said Wallace, who helped the Pistons win the 2004 NBA title and had his number retired by the team two years ago. "It’s just amazing to just think about that type of speed from all these cars and how close they drive to each other, the skill set that they have to have to do that.
“I thought I was prepared for the banking. It was amazing to be out there on the track, to realize the banking is a little bit steeper than I thought. The first time I thought the car was about to tip over a little bit, making all the left turns.”
Wallace, part owner of the Grand Rapids Drive — the Pistons' G-League affiliate — feels the Pistons are headed in the right direction following the hiring of head coach Dwane Casey.
“I like the hire with Dwane Casey,” Wallace said. “I know Dwane Casey personally and I saw how he was able to energize and build that Toronto team. I think he’s definitely going to help the Pistons."
Wallace feels his former teammate Chauncey Billups would make a strong general manager if given the chance.
“As far as Chauncey being a GM one day, I would love to see Chauncey head an operation with the Pistons," Wallace said. "I think as a leader who won a championship here, I think the city itself would love to see Chauncey here getting it done in the front office.
"As a teammate I know he’s more than capable. I had been in the locker room, I had been in the trenches with him. He was able to keep me and Rasheed (Wallace) in line, so I know he can run a front office.”