Ty Dillon and I go way back.
The first NASCAR race I covered as a media member was July 26, 2014 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As a graduate student at Indiana University earning my master’s in sports journalism, I was part of the student news bureau that covered the NASCAR Xfinity Series race that day.
I and many others watched Dillon race to his first Xfinity win while driving Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 Chevrolet. He hasn’t been back to victory lane since.
Fast-forward almost seven years.
On Sept. 21, 2020, Germain Racing, for which Dillon competed full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series for four seasons, announced it was shutting down and would be selling its charter at the end of the season. This left Dillon without a job for 2021.
About two weeks later, on Oct. 9, I was officially laid off by NBC Sports.
In the months since, both of us have pieced together jobs for the early portion of the year in our efforts to secure something permanent. While he’s landed part-time gigs with 23XI Racing, Gaunt Bros. Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity operation up through April, I’ve been freelancing with Frontstretch and Speed Sport while also covering high school sports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
I’m a little over a week into being 30. Dillon will turn 29 on Feb. 27. For someone I never had a one-on-one conversation with, let alone an interview, I’ve probably never personally related to a NASCAR driver more at any other point in my life.
Then came the three-day period last week that began with Dillon’s failure to make the Daytona 500 in his qualifying race and ended with him crashing in the Xfinity Series season-opener after running up front in JGR’s No. 54 Toyota.
A picture of Dillon at his car after a sixth-place finish in the Feb. 11 duel wasn’t enough to get him into the 500 will stay with me for awhile.
— Frank Matthews (@frank_matthews) February 12, 2021
Wednesday afternoon (Feb. 17) provided a first for me: a one-on-one conversation with Dillon.
Here’s the edited and condensed version of our conversation. You can watch or hear the full interview on my YouTube show and podcast “Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin.”
Daniel McFadin, Frontstretch: I never got to hear your thoughts about what happened (in the Duel). And I remember seeing the picture of you on the door of your car with your head in your arms afterward. Has there ever been like a three, four-day period for you like that in your career?
Ty Dillon: Honestly, it’s been more of a five, six-month period that we’ve been in a little bit of these negative outcome situations ever since our team at Germain Racing was shutting down. We lost GEICO and was really thrown back on her heels or on our butt so to speak, with a small amount of time trying to round up funding and sponsorship, which it takes a lot from the driver to bring nowadays unfortunately, to even get a ride. It has been a lot of Ls in the column of getting momentum going on things. But also some great opportunities that come out of it the last couple months and the opportunity to drive for Toyota, first of all, and with the 23XI guys. That was huge and I’ll go down as the first driver of that car, which is kind of cool. And something I’ll always be able to say whether it’s in a trivia pack or what.
That was a great experience for me. And then having an opportunity to race in the Daytona 500 and attempt to qualify for that race. … I think that was something that helped me over Speedweeks that I was just thankful to be there after really in the first half of my career, realizing how hard it is to be at the top level and to stay up there. Putting in so much work this offseason just to get to Daytona.
McFadin: Are you in a mindset of there’s nowhere to go but up at this point?
Dillon: I feel more confident in myself than the year I came into the sport as far as being able to get the job done, win races and win championships. I feel personally like any team that doesn’t take a chance on me is missing out right now. And I know that things don’t just work out by saying that you’re good. It’s a lot of proving and also our sport having backing. But I do believe in myself. And I do believe in myself on and off the track, the way I represent myself and companies.
I feel like I’m getting to a spot in my career, where I feel like I’m not at the peak prime yet, especially when you look at other drivers who are hitting their best years of their career at 40. I’m still 28. But I’ve gotten good perspective quickly at 28 to where I work really hard. I focus on my nutrition and health and all the little things that when you’re young, it sometimes takes a lot of years to figure out. I’m putting a lot of time and effort into that and focusing on what it takes to be the best. And now I’m just waiting for the opportunity to line up to really prove that with great equipment.
I’m so happy for the direction our sport is going & with amazing companies like Toyota leading the charge with equal opportunities for all.
My little girl gets to grow up in a world where she’ll be able to chase any dream! To every child out there, YOU CAN! You have my support! https://t.co/xfjhadlqBL
— Ty Dillon (@tydillon) February 14, 2021
McFadin: You’re now part of JGR for at least three more races. What has that been like integrating yourself into this team after years with RCR, Germain, General Motors? You’re now in a completely different area code. What’s been the adaptation process for becoming part of the big Toyota family?
Dillon: I think with JGR and Toyota in general, my first goal is to make sure that they all know I’m their guy. They’ve given me an opportunity. When I come in the building, I’m all in for my team. And my team is Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity side, Toyota Racing Development and Gaunt Bros. Racing, and I’m all in. I’m here as long as they’ll keep me and that’s my first goal is to earn their respect. … Essentially, drivers now are business partners with the amount of money relied on to bring to the table. So you got to provide value in many ways now, that’s been my goal and my focus to make sure that they know they didn’t make a mistake by bringing me on board.
McFadin: What’s surprised you about Toyota that maybe you weren’t expecting?
Dillon: That’s a good question. They have been the standard in my eyes as far as competition. Just results. Joe Gibbs Racing, and along with Furniture Row or when (Leavine Family Racing) went over there, these different teams that have gone over there instantly have gone from where they were mid-pack, 25th-place cars to top-10 cars competing for race wins and championships and then Gibbs has always kind of been there. So you see that and you know something good is happening there. And then, as soon as I was given the approval to race for Gibbs, whether it was just the 23XI or Gaunt Bros., the way they have brought me in, the relationships that have already started forming and just the feeling of they want me.
They make me feel like they care that I’m there. And that is massive, the relationship side of who Toyota is, Toyota Racing Development, they care. They’re super passionate about winning. They’re great communicators in working together with their drivers to get the best result. And their teams. And I just think that is always what takes teams to the next level is that communication, that person-to-person relationship. That formed very quickly. I think that was a shock to me. It’s not just this systematic machine where you just plug and go in.
McFadin: So as someone who spent pretty much their entire racing career up until this point with some sort of tie to your family, was there any hesitation in leaving that? Are you someone that actually likes having some distance from that?
Dillon: There’s an in-between. I think some separation is good, I think it’s relationship-to-relationship. My grandfather and I have a very respectable relationship in that point and has grown over the years. Racing for Germain wasn’t racing for RCR, that was a different team, different owner.
McFadin: But they had a technical alliance.
Dillon: Yeah, they had a technical alliance, it’s not a full separation, but it was a lot different. I think over the years our relationship has shifted from owner to just more grandson and grandfather. And to me that’s the most important thing, whether he was a car owner or not, I just want a relationship with him as my grandfather. So I think that’s where, you know, it has grown over time, and it has manifested and he respects me as a father of two and a husband who has to work hard to provide for his family and keep a job and he wants to see me be successful, no matter where that might be. And he’s been fully supportive this year and excited. He was one of the first people who came up to me after the Xfinity race, and even though it didn’t go great, he was happy to see me running well. That’s all I can ask for.
McFadin: I want to double back on one thing. You said you’re more confident in your ability than you were when you came into the sport. And that kind of floored me. Because in 2017, your rookie year, preseason media tour, you had your media availability. And I asked you a question about why (that was) the right time for you to go into the Cup Series, because you hadn’t won in the Xfinity Series since 2014. And your answer (see above video) has been stuck in my brain for the last four years.
I’ll just read it off to you. ‘Because in my heart, I feel like I’m the best driver. If I didn’t have that kind of confidence I wouldn’t be driving race cars.’ And that’s stuck with me for the last four years, just because the level of confidence in that answer given what the stats said at the time. How do you have a healthy confidence in yourself without having a confidence that maybe blinds you to the reality of your situation?
Dillon: That same statement I believe is true. I would repeat that same statement. But, five years into a Cup career, 28 years old, two kids, a little bit more mature. I didn’t really know what it required to prove that. To show that. I’ve always known that I have a level of raw talent inside of me that I believe can manifest as something. And maybe at that age of immaturity, all I could say was the bluntness of it, of what I thought. I just feel like now, as my career has gone on and the people that I’ve raced against and the things that I’ve learned, I still believe that same statement is true, that I’m one of the best drivers out there that can go win races and win championships without a doubt. 100% believe in that.
But now I have, not only just by saying that, because of my raw talent, I have over the past two years, two-and-a-half years, have taken the other things about that more serious. So not just relying on my raw talent to say, I’m the best driver out here. I’m gonna make it happen. But I have put an immense amount of time and money and effort into my body, what I eat, and how I exercise. The way that I prepare for races, the way that I have learned how to communicate in relationships with not only crew chiefs or members of the team. I feel like I have gone from a childish state of relying on overall talent, which I think you see a lot of rookies start that way. …
And I think the biggest bummer of what has happened this offseason is I feel like I was starting to hit my stride and getting into those places, getting into that mindset of preparation from the time that the race is over on Sunday to how I prepared my body to go back to the race the next weekend. And how I prepared my mind and the things that I was doing. Obviously, there’s always still room to grow. I don’t have this thing figured out yet. But I feel like I was getting to that point to where we just needed to have a little bit more speed in the car, week-in and week-out. And as I was progressing, our team was kind of moving towards the direction of closing the doors, obviously. So it’s a weird transition. The statement’s still the same. But the way that I surround that statement with where I am now is a lot different.
McFadin: So last year you got a lot of attention because of the Instagram conversation you had with Bubba (Wallace). And I think it was in that conversation that you said even before all the social justice stuff started last year, you had done your own studying of Martin Luther King Jr. And that really surprised me, because that’s not something I would expect to hear from any driver really in the NASCAR garage, saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going of my own volition to research Martin Luther King Jr.’ And I’ve wanted to ask you since then, what was it that made you want to research Martin Luther King Jr. and what’s that research included?
Dillon: I think a lot of that came from as I have grown and matured, kind of the same things that I’ve talked about that I’ve done inside the race car, but (also) outside the track. I’ve wanted to be a better person. I wanted to understand things better. And if you don’t learn, you can’t empathize. You got to empathize to be able to learn what other people are going through and to understand situations from not only your perspective in life. So that was one of the things that I was really getting into whether it was the beginning of quarantine and even that previous offseason was just studying great people. No matter race or creed. Whatever it was. Gender, anything. I just wanted to study great people. And what was the reoccurring thing from whether it was Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, just great, influential people. And all the speeches and all the quotes and all the things that they say … And through that, you learn so many details about great people and how to handle situations in your life. And it was unique how last year played out with all the social injustice and the different things that had transpired.
I was thankful that I had kind of gone through my own personal study. I’m not a scholar of any type. I can’t quote things right off the top of the books that I’ve read. But they impacted me personally. So when things came up in life, I had learned doing my own research of trying to be a better person to where I felt freer to speak about it, where I felt more truth. It wasn’t that I had to make something up that just sounded good, but didn’t really know what I was talking about. No, I had put in the time to learn and to understand these things, because I didn’t know. And I’m still trying to grow in that.
Life isn’t just about, for me, the racing side and going out and performing. I want to be a well-rounded human being. And most important, I want to be a good husband and a good father, and a great example to my family. And those are things that I think and what the reoccurring theme was, to I guess a circle back between all those great people, was loving people and the proper way to love people. And that was literally the talk with Bubba and the things that I posted, was all because of the way that I have grown and trying to empathize and just love people. And realizing that I don’t know everyone’s situation. Not everyone knows my situation. But everyone deserves love and deserves to be treated fairly, and deserves an opportunity to speak and speak out.
And so just trying to learn that from all angles, because … the way I was raised in my experiences, is one way to see things. Everyone has a million different perspectives and the way they’re raised and you can’t just say, ‘Well, this is how it happened for me. And that’s the way I see things. And this is the way it’s got to be.’ I think that’s the most ignorant thing anybody can do in life is to try see it (like that). But I’ve tried to just broaden my horizons, get out of my norm of life and see things from other people’s lives. And my wife is definitely probably the one to thank for a lot of that. And she’s always had great perspective. And she’s so empathetic towards just people in general and has helped me grow immensely.
McFadin: What are some things, like books, you’ve read about Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Dillon: I just did a lot of quote research, I watched a lot of YouTube, old videos of his speeches and things and just kind of did my own gathering and research, it was a bunch of different things. I think some of the most impactful stuff was some of his just speeches, just listening to the tone. Visually seeing that because there was so much before my time. But putting myself kind of in that moment, and then matching it with the moment that we were in and just seeing how what he was saying then, it’s still the same truth now with the things that’s going on and the way that we should react, the way that we should treat each other. It was just one of those great tie together moments of history and current, present time in my life.
And you know, it all matches up with my faith in God. And I think that was the main glue of the whole ingredients.