Daytona 500 pole winner knows his football

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:49
PM ET
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The roar of cars practicing at Daytona International Speedway is deafening outside, but inside the motorcoach of Daytona 500 pole winner Austin Dillon the only sound that can be heard is the voice of Denver Broncos coach John Fox.

Dillon is watching the NFL Network as Fox and others in Indianapolis for the scouting combine talk about the country's top college prospects.

The 23-year-old Sprint Cup Series rookie has been under the microscope since winning the pole in the iconic No. 3 that until now hasn't been on the track in NASCAR's top series since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

No offense, he's about No. 3'd out.

[+] EnlargeAustin Dillon
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtSprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon, a Panthers season-ticket holder, wears Luke Kuechly's No. 59 jersey to every game.
So football is a way for Dillon to escape. He watches the NFL on television more than any other sport when away from the track -- and sometimes at it. One of his toughest moments last season came when he was crowned the Nationwide Series champion on the same night the Carolina Panthers faced the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football."

Dillon is a Carolina season-ticket holder. He spent time with defensive tackle Greg Hardy and other Panthers at the recent Super Bowl. He knows the roster almost as well as general manager Dave Gettleman.

So when asked to take a break from the No. 3 hoopla to talk football, he didn't hesitate to make room in his hectic schedule that included an interview with a Swedish television station.

You can feel the passion in Dillon's voice as the subject turns to Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly, the need for quarterback Cam Newton to get a long-term extension and fantasy football.

Here's how the conversation went:

What's your favorite number in the NFL?

Dillon: Well, it's not used a lot, but the 3 obviously. [Seattle quarterback] Russell Wilson has a really good number. That was pretty cool for him to win the Super Bowl this year and then us going into Daytona with the 3. There's a lot of connections with that.

I'm assuming you're not a huge fan of backup quarterback Derek Anderson who wears 3 for Carolina, so what's your favorite number on the Panthers?

Dillon: Fifty-nine. Luke Kuechly is my favorite player, so I'll go with 59. When we drafted him I took out a lot of information on him from when he was at Boston College, all his tackle records. The cool thing about him is he's like the silent assassin. He's quiet and he goes in and puts in a lot of work and he's in on almost every tackle. I wear his jersey to all the games. But I've made friends with quite a few other players.

Such as?

Dillon: [Wide receiver] Steve Smith is probably my biggest hero because he's been doing it for so long. He always is able to step up. Since I became a season-ticket owner, Kuechly's been my guy, but I got to talk a little on Twitter to Steve Smith. He said he was in the mountains when we won the pole with the No. 3. He said to go out there and do me. A lot of big shoes to fill, but 'do you' he said. ... He's a Dale Earnhardt fan, too, I think.

I saw you were with Hardy at the Super Bowl. What do you think of him?

Dillon: The sky is the limit. He's got so much potential moving forward, and he had his best year this past year, obviously. He can only get stronger and faster and better. And also learning from Charles Johnson, and having [Star] Lotulelei, Kawann [Edwards] in the middle opens the whole field for him, really.'

What do you think of his alter persona, "The Kraken?"

Dillon: I love his nickname. It's cool. The names of all the 'MonStrz Inc.' are pretty sweet. That front is probably the best front in the NFL. I'd put them up against any front. Seattle's is pretty good, but their secondary is what was special about that defense.
If you had an alter persona, what would it be?

Dillon: If I was a Monster? I have to ask my peers that. (One in a nearby recliner tells him it would have to be a small monster because he's so short). I don' t know. I'll have to think about it.

Would you rather hit the wall at DIS at 200 mph or get hit by Greg Hardy in full pads?

Dillon: Definitely, would rather take a hit here. I've taken a hit here. It wouldn't be any fun taking a hit from Hardy full bore, wide open ... even if I was in full pads. Seems they get a lot more concussions than we do.

When did you become a Carolina fan?

Dillon: My grandfather [team owner Richard Childress] had season tickets before any of us, so I remember going to games when I was little with my mom. Then we sold our season tickets, which is probably the worst thing my grandfather did looking back because it's just a loss. That was stupid. Me and my mom and brother went to look at them about three years ago and we've had them the last two years.

Do you wear your staple cowboy hat at Panthers games?

Dillon: No. I wear my Panthers hat. I have one Panthers hat that I wear every Sunday. And I wear the same 59 jersey and same khakis to every home game, because I was pretty superstitious about the clothes I was wearing. We lost the first game, and I changed the hat, and the hat worked from then on.

How tough was it being at the Nationwide banquet in South Beach the night Carolina beat New England on Monday night?

Dillon: That was the one game that we all circled as this was the game we want to be at. My brother actually left halfway through the banquet to watch the end of the game. That was a heck of a game. As a season-ticket holder that is the one game you want to watch.

But we gave our tickets to some friends. The one deal was you had to cheer for the Panthers, be loud and wear Panthers' gear.

How many fantasy football leagues are you in?

Dillon: Probably four. I do the Sirius XM Celebrity League. But my main league, the league I care about the most, is the league with my buddies, people from RCR and my family. It's a 16-team league, so it's a deep league. It's standard in points. No flex player. I've made the playoffs every year, but lost in the first round two years in a row.

I know you played in the Little League World Series, but did you ever play football?

Dillon: I played in middle school and Pop Warner, and our seventh- and eighth-grade team. Our team went undefeated in the eighth grade. OK, we lost one game but we couldn't start all of our players because of a youngster deal. It was a controversial game.

What position did you play?

Dillon: Fullback and corner. I had really good hands, so they brought me in for one pass play per game. It was called 'Touchdown Special.' It was a hook 'n' ladder. So I'd take two steps, do a button hook, come back to the ball and pitch it around the end.

If you could play a position in the NFL, what would it be?

Dillon: Corner. I like playing defense. I like to hit and look for the ball.

Don't you have a dirt track helmet that you had made to look like a Panthers' helmet?

Dillon: I just got it done. We wrapped it for dirt. We have a lot of Panthers fans over at RCR, so our decal guy and my front carrier kind of came up with it. Did the radio spot on the back for the quarterback and put the 3 on the back. It was really cool. They put the facemask on the front. They did the whole deal. I won a dirt race with it the other night.

If I gave you the choice between winning the Daytona 500 and be a starter for an NFL team in the Super Bowl, which would you pick?

Dillon: Oh, man. I don't know. That's tough. Really tough. If I was big enough and strong enough to be an NFL player it might be a little different, but they have such a rough life I feel like as far as the grind that they go through and the toll that it takes on their body. In the long run, I'd rather be a Daytona 500 champion and have my body and everything after my career. The parties at the Super Bowl, [if you were a player] you wouldn't be able to go, so it wouldn't be as big of a day.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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