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Drivers use other sports to relax away from track

Jeff Birchfield • Aug 14, 2019 at 11:41 PM

BRISTOL — With the high demands of racing at NASCAR’s highest level, drivers have to find a release from the pressure.

In the past, Ricky Stenhouse, driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Ford, and Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, have returned to their roots and raced on dirt tracks. During the season, they often use other sports to take their mind off the pressure of racing in events like Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

Stenhouse has done bull riding and twice competed in the popular “American Ninja Warrior” show. His workout routine to prepare for that competition has a direct effect on his racing at Bristol.

“The more you work out, it pays off at places like Bristol,” Stenhouse said. “You spend a lot of time sawing on the wheel, trying to get your car to rotate in the corner. We try to keep our heart rate down and you have that stamina to last the whole race. That’s where my workout program helps at Bristol.”

Growing up in Olive Branch, Mississippi, he’s a big Ole Miss football fan. A friend of former coach Hugh Freeze, the driver caught some passes during a 2014 practice and later that season got to lead the Rebels onto the field before their game with rival Mississippi State.

The Rebels won that version of the Egg Bowl 31-17 to knock the Bulldogs out of a potential college football playoff berth.

“That was the coolest moment, being able to run the team out of the tunnel at Ole Miss,” Stenhouse said. “Then hearing Coach Freeze’s pregame and halftime speeches, they pumped me up like I thought I was going to play. That was really cool.”

Another favorite activity is golf. He and other NASCAR drivers often hit the links together as Stenhouse enjoys the individual challenge of the game.

“It’s something that I enjoy because to get better, it’s yourself working on your swing to make your game better,” he said. “It’s not on anybody else. It’s all you.”

His most memorable round came playing alongside fellow driver Kevin Harvick at the site of a major championship.

“One of the cooler things I’ve done is after the PGA Championship, Harvick and I played Bethpage Black,” Stenhouse said. “I played from the tips to see what it was like from back there. It’s a long course, but the rough was so thick, it was hard to find your ball if you hit it there. It gave me an appreciation of how good those guys are.”

Dillon’s athletic background includes playing in the 2002 Little League World Series for the Southeast Region champions from Clemmons, North Carolina. He also played football as a youth and is an ardent fan of the Carolina Panthers.

“As a season-ticket holder, it was great seeing the Panthers go to the Super Bowl and watching them win the NFC championship a few years back,” Dillon said. “Going to the Super Bowl, I had a blast doing that. I hope to see them do it another time. They’ve got a great shot this year of being a team to be reckoned with.”

Dillon plays in two different basketball leagues, one in which Stenhouse and Denny Hamlin also compete. Another league includes members of his pit crew and former drivers Phil Parsons and Michael Waltrip. In addition, Austin and his brother Ty, driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet, host a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.

“We have a good group with these and our golf league also,” Dillon said. “I’m into a lot of sports. I like to stay competitive.”

RACING AT BRISTOL

Both Stenhouse and Dillon look to be competitive at Bristol Motor Speedway, one of their favorite and best tracks. Both are outside the NASCAR playoff hunt with Stenhouse 21st in points and Dillon one spot behind him. Most likely, it will take a win for either to qualify for the playoffs.

Stenhouse, who has two second-place finishes at Bristol, feels confident about Saturday’s race.

“I feel like it’s a race track where no matter how our season is going, we have an opportunity to win,” he said. “We put a lot of emphasis on our Bristol car like we do our Daytona 500 car. I want to win at Bristol, but obviously the Night Race is so big, a race that every driver wants to win. It’s a race track that I feel suits my driving style. You can push the issue and the closer you get to the edge, the faster you are.”

Dillon is a former winner at Bristol in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Food City 300. He ranks that victory right behind his Cup Series wins in the Daytona 500 win and the Coca-Cola 600 as the biggest of his career.

“Anytime you win at Bristol, it’s special, especially with the history of RCR there,” Dillon said. “To beat (Kyle) Larson was cool. He’s such a good driver when it comes to that track. I will always remember that win.”

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