CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Christian McCaffrey’s life in sports has been all about speed, but the Carolina Panthers running back had never experienced it the way he did on Sunday, when he served as an honorary pace car driver, leading 38 cars with 750 horsepower each to the green flag for the start of the Coca-Cola 600.
Austin Dillon, the driver of the iconic No. 3 car, wouldn’t have been surprised had his good buddy tried to race the field in the pace car.
“He’s aggressive and tenacious, man," Dillon said with a laugh. “He doesn’t give an inch. He wants to win at everything."
That was evident as McCaffrey anticipated the event.
"I came in with super-high expectations about the speed, but they told me I’m 46 miles an hour on the cruise control. When I heard that, my nerves calmed down a little bit, so I think I can do that."
Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady and linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn -- as well as recording artist and Trackhouse Racing Team partner Pitbull, heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury and longtime talk show host Jay Leno and his music director, Kevin Eubanks -- were among the celebrities who joined McCaffrey at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Driving the pace car is one of many ways McCaffrey finally has taken center stage as the face of the franchise. That never quite developed last year after the Panthers moved on from quarterback Cam Newton.
Because of the pandemic and injuries that sidelined him for 13 games, McCaffrey was somewhat invisible locally and nationally.
But last month, he played golf in the pro-am at the Wells Fargo Championship, drawing arguably the biggest crowd outside of Phil Mickelson. McCaffrey also launched a “22 and Troops" program to help active U.S. military personnel, veterans and front-line workers and their families focus on the overcoming trauma and PTSD.
On July 2, McCaffrey will play the piano on stage in a benefit concert with country music star Zach Bryan. It’ll be the largest crowd McCaffrey has played the piano in front of, by far.
Dillon, a die-hard Panthers fan when he isn't behind the wheel of the car once driven by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt, is glad to see McCaffrey finally take the spotlight off the field as he does on it.
“Everything he does, everything he touches, he wants it to be the best," Dillon said. “I feel like I’m one of the most competitive people I know. But he is the most competitive person I’ve met in my life. It’s inspiring."
‘I feel really good’
McCaffrey had never missed a game for an injury at any level before last season, when a high-ankle sprain, an AC joint injury and a quad injury forced him to miss all but three of 16 games.
So to see him running and cutting full speed at offseason workouts is a good sign.
“I feel good," McCaffrey said. “I feel really good. I’m back to 100 percent and feel healthy and ready to roll."
McCaffrey wouldn’t have been driving a pace car or hitting golf balls were he not 100 percent. It’s not in his DNA to put anything above being ready for the football season.
McCaffrey doesn’t really like talking about last season because he was a nonfactor. He couldn’t do, as new Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold said, “some freaky things" that in 2019 helped the former Stanford star become the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
McCaffrey also couldn’t enjoy his new role as the team ambassador, a role Newton held from 2011 to 2019.
That in itself is a quandary for McCaffrey. As much as he wants to be the best back in NFL history, he doesn’t want the focus on him because it’s a team sport.
“It’s the most team game that gets the most individual attention," McCaffrey said. “I enjoy doing stuff in the community because it’s fun. It’s our obligation to give back to the community. A lot of my teammates do the same stuff."
His teammates, however, don’t draw attention the way McCaffrey does, because of his rare physical ability that makes him arguably the best dual-threat back in the NFL.
Dillon is convinced McCaffrey could be successful as a driver in NASCAR.
“He would probably need some practice," Dillon said. “But I don’t think it would take long for him to get good."
22 and 3
So how did McCaffrey and Dillon become good friends? It started when Dillon direct-messaged McCaffrey on social media before the 2017 draft.
“I was, ‘Hey, man, if you end up coming to Carolina, let me know and we can get together and we can hang out,’" Dillon said.
It took a while for the relationship to develop because of a conflict in schedules; Dillon lives about an hour from Charlotte, and McCaffrey was “super focused on just getting started."
The relationship took off in 2018, after Dillon convinced McCaffrey and several teammates to be his guest at the NASCAR All-Star Race in Charlotte. Now they get together for meals, to play basketball and just hang out at Dillon’s home near Lexington or McCaffrey’s on Lake Norman.
There was even a time when they shared the same hair stylist.
“He’s just a normal guy who wants to have a good time and works hard at what he does and wants to learn and grow as a person," Dillon said.
Maybe one day McCaffrey and Dillon will share single-digit numbers. McCaffrey ruled out switching from No. 22 to 5 -- his college and high school number -- this year because it would be “a good check."
It would have cost him more than $1 million to purchase all the unsold No. 22 inventory necessary under NFL rules, according to a source.
But the change is on the table for 2022, when it would be free.
“I like him in the deuce-two too," Dillon said. “I feel like the 22 is a stud running back number. And all of his rookie cards have 22 on it."
McCaffrey was wearing a black No. 3 cap on a Zoom call last season, so it was natural to be asked if that was an Earnhardt or Dillon hat. He quickly said Dillon.
“That made me pretty happy," said Dillon, who has a McCaffrey jersey and several of the running back’s sports cards as part of his Carolina paraphernalia.
Dillon was hoping to win the pole for the 600 so he could make an Earnhardt “Intimidator"-like move and bump McCaffrey in the pace car from the front row. So, when Dillon qualified sixth, McCaffrey was asked if he was glad.
"Yeah, he definitely would mess with me," McCaffrey said. "I'm sure there are a lot of guys who'd mess with me too. We'll see."
Sure enough, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who qualified second, did just that by giving the Panthers star a little nudge in the rear bumper.
McCaffrey came to the track early Sunday to get a few pace car practice laps in, but Dillon was unable to ride along due to contractual circumstances. (Dillon drives for Chevy; the pace car was a Toyota.)
But the two have been in a car together before.
“We’re not going to get into specifics," Dillon said with a chuckle. “He had a new car, and he wanted me to drive it. I drove it pretty fast, just for a quick second. He loves speed, in all forms of it. He’s fascinated by that.
“I’d like to get him in a race car one day and let him gas it up just to feel the horsepower and unleash it, kind of like he does on the field."
On the field is where McCaffrey is focused. He intimidates defenses -- the way Earnhardt did drivers -- with his 4.49-second 40 speed and jukes that leaves defenders grasping for air.
The Panthers need that to end a string of three straight losing seasons.
McCaffrey has been on the losing end in 11 straight games dating back to 2019, and he especially wants to do all he can to change that.
So far, he likes what Darnold brings to the offense and all the weapons around him. As a fan, Dillon can’t wait to see his buddy back doing what he does best.
And no, Dillon has no desire to do what McCaffrey does on Sundays.
“Shoot, no. Man, they’re crazy," Dillon said.
This coming from somebody those outside of racing call wild for driving at such high speeds.
“I’ve got a helmet and a roll cage around me," Dillon said. “He’s got no roll cage."