Austin Dillon doesn’t remember the time, date or place of the conversation — and yet the exchange is how Tuesday’s momentous announcement happened at all.
It was sometime in 2011, Dillon recalled. At a Truck Series event. Kyle Busch, already a star at the Cup Series level, had just watched an early-20s driver zoom around a racetrack, and Busch was impressed enough to approach the kid afterwards and offer him a spot on the Xfinity Series team Busch was starting the next year.
“He stopped me at a truck race — I was racing trucks against him — and mentioned the idea of me coming to drive for him,” Dillon told The Charlotte Observer on Tuesday, in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Uptown Charlotte. “So I always felt in the back of my mind that he felt good about what I could do in a race car.
“That always meant something to me. And then when given the opportunity to push him to RCR (Richard Childress Racing), I fought for him because he’s one of the only guys who has fought for me, other than my grandfather.”
When Busch and his future boss, Richard Childress, told the story of how the two-time Cup Series champion moved from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing — a move that ranks among “one of the most important” decisions of the decorated driver’s life. and one that immediately changes the landscape of the NASCAR Cup Series field — the same name seemed to keep popping up.
“Talking with Austin…” Busch said when beginning to answer one question.
“My grandson, Austin Dillon, he came to me and said…” Childress began once, too.
It turns out that the playoff driver and grandson of Childress and longtime friend of Busch had a heavy hand in luring Busch to RCR, a move that could shape the future of his organization for a long time.
“It was a good joint effort as a group,” Dillon said, adding that he, his grandfather and RCR president Torrey Galida worked closely on making this happen. “I feel like I can help our company in that way because I feel like I have some ears in the garage.
“My relationship with Kyle was good. That helped get it started, and then those guys, the big guns, came in to work on the contract side of things, and finished it off.”
Busch: ‘Your grandfather wants me?’
Busch’s free agency, for months, loomed as one of the biggest questions of the 2022 NASCAR season: Mars. Inc. announced it would exit the sport at the end of the year and effectively left Busch without a primary sponsor for his No. 18 Cup team in 2023, complicating his future with JGR. Talks over a deal stalled. One of the best drivers in NASCAR history, despite reportedly being willing to take a pay cut to stay, was likely going to have to leave.
Around the same time, RCR’s future was up in the air, too. One of the organization’s two Cup drivers, Tyler Reddick, announced in July that he was leaving for 23XI Racing in 2024, leaving open a car the company was eventually looking to fill.
Dillon saw all this, got clearance from his boss/grandfather and was the first person to reach out to Busch from the RCR camp, he said. A text went out first. Then came a phone call that, as Dillon recalled, featured an exchange that went something like this:
“What do you think about driving at RCR?” Dillon asked.
Busch’s response: “Your grandfather wants me?”
It was a legitimate question. In 2011—not long after Busch offered Dillon that aforementioned slot on his budding Xfinity team—Childress and Busch got into a physical altercation that will one day exist in NASCAR cannon: Childress reportedly approached Busch, put him in a headlock and punched him several times. after Busch bumped into an RCR car on the race’s cool-down lap.
The owner was later fined $150,000.
Despite their history, Dillon responded resolutely: “Yeah man,” he told Busch, “who wouldn’t want you?”
“The history is the history,” Dillon said on Tuesday, a few months after that first communication. “They’re both grown men and that stuff happened, but I think it’s awesome to see full-circle how friendships could be brought back around, and this is a testament to that.”
A ‘fun’ future at Richard Childress Racing
Busch will drive the No. 8 car in the Cup Series in 2023 and will be one of three Cup drivers competing for RCR, organization officials said Tuesday. His teammates will be Reddick, whose charter has yet to be announced, and Dillon.
The future Hall of Famer said he was ultimately tempted to join RCR because the organization gives him a chance to “hit reset” and to win immediately. Busch also said he loves that he is encouraged to be who he is — that his polarizing and fierceness, which is what makes him unique, is welcomed. (The driver even drew endearing comparisons from Childress of another driver who was known for his “take-no-prisoners” persona: Dale Earnhardt Sr.)
It also, Dillon hopes, presents the opportunity for “fun.”
“I want Kyle to have fun at RCR,” he said. “I want Kyle to be himself because that’s what makes Kyle good. So hopefully together we can maximize each other’s potential.”
Just past noon on Tuesday, a reporter asked Dillon if this was the precursor to him one day being the head of RCR.
“You never know,” Dillon said. “Right now, I’m focused on driving that No. 3 cars. I got a three-year contract to win as many races as I can and win a championship.”
He added: “When it comes to RCR, that’s where my heart is. It always will be. If my grandfather says, ‘Hey, I need you to do something.’ I’m gonna do it. And I’ll always have the company in mind first. That’s important to me — that when I cross the tracks, everybody knows that I’m going to put them first over myself, or anyone else.”
This story was originally published September 14, 2022 12:13 PM.