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From low point, Ty Dillon moves forward with new purpose

Steve Letarte and Dan Beaver analyze the field for the Geico 500 at Talladega on Sunday and explain why their strategies include fading the favorites.

Once a regular in NASCAR’s premier division, times have changed for Ty Dillon.

Since the shutdown of Cup Series organization Germain Racing last fall, Dillon has had to transition to a part-time career inside the Toyota Racing camp.

He’s made two Cup starts this season with the small Gaunt Brothers Racing team. And on Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway, he’ll make his fourth Xfinity start in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Instead of excelling in top-tier JGR equipment, Dillon has been hit with setbacks.

At Daytona, he salvaged a 14th-place finish after being swept up in a 14-car crash while racing for second with 16 laps to go. Then at Miami, a hole in the radiator put him out of the race after 102 laps.

His third race at Las Vegas on March 6 didn’t go much better, as he was involved in two wrecks before finishing 31st.

Two days later, he revealed on his podcast just how much his career uncertainty was taking a toll on him.

He talked about the difficulty of watching a Cup race from home. He talked about the stress from making the most of limited opportunities. He talked about how it all finally made him break down in the kitchen that day with his wife, Haley.

But in his hurt, he also realized that it was okay to release and share his emotions instead of holding them in.

He titled the episode “I Quit Today.” Not as in quitting his career, but as acknowledging being in a place we can all find ourselves - waking up one day and just wanting to leave everything behind.

In a sport that runs on imagery of American pride, strength and determination, it was a striking display of vulnerability.

During a Friday media teleconference, Dillon was asked why he chose to be honest about his struggles.

He wanted to use his situation to help others who are troubled, and felt that sharing the reality of it was the best way to do so.

“We live in such a world of putting out your best picture is what you’re supposed to be and that is what your life is supposed to be,” he said. “I certainly have an amazing life and I post pictures of my amazing kids and wife, but I think it’s also nice to have a little bit of reality of ‘I’m having a hard time, I want people to know that, but in my hard time, I believe that there is going to be good things.’

“I think sharing life and sharing community and what you are going through is the only way to make it through, and not be so stressful and anxious. All of that seems to come through comparison of other people’s lives.

“You think that other people’s lives are better than yours and that’s not always the truth and we can always help people whatever situation we are in, whether if we are on the mountain or if we are in a little bit of a valley. There is always opportunity to help others around you.”

He also carries that belief when it comes to working with his teammates in the Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity stable, particularly his younger counterparts: Harrison Burton (who also makes his debut Cup start at Talladega), Brandon Jones and Ty Gibbs.

While he hesitates to call himself a coach, Dillon has shared his experience with the group and even brought them together for “team building” on the go-kart track in the first weeks of the season.

“I think I provide value in that,” he said. “I want to provide value behind the wheel, but I have a lot of experience from when I was born in this sport and knowledge.

“I’ve seen a lot of things go on and I’m still young enough to be able to relate to the young guys, so that is something that I enjoy doing.”

Jones said the help is appreciated.
“I actually learned a lot from Ty Dillon when he came to run the superspeedway – the opening race at Daytona,” Jones said.

“Typically, we all have a meeting beforehand with drivers, crew chiefs, spotters. We will go over dos and don’ts. Let’s try to stay with the teammates, but they also brought up a lot of good points in the meetings on side drafting, and how to do so. ... Ty has brought a decent amount to my program and I really truly believe that is why I won that first stage in Daytona, is the advice that was given in Daytona.”

As much as Dillon enjoys it though, he still wants to win and get closer to his goal of returning to Cup full-time.

During his Cup career, Dillon has been traditionally steady at Talladega with a 12th-place average finish. Last October, he stayed just ahead of the crashes on a wild final lap to finish third, his best Cup result.

Saturday’s Xfinity race at ‘Dega is his final scheduled start with JGR. But Dillon believes he put too much pressure on himself to succeed in his first three races. He won’t make the same mistake again.

Instead, he has peace of mind in knowing that while he may not control the outcome or what the future may hold, he can control his effort.

“As long as I do everything to the best of my ability, I’ve got to know in my heart that’s the best that I had this weekend, and I will move on to the next opportunity - and I certainly hope it’s a win,” Dillon said. “I’m going to have a car capable of it. I believe I can do it.

“There’s never been a time that I’ve gotten in a race car that I didn’t think I could win the race, so I think for me, having that perspective is easier and makes me a more free and better driver.”