By: Brian Rice
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Butch Jones has talked about wanting to go fast. Thursday, he welcomed someone to campus that does just that.
As part of a continuing series of events between the two great Tennessee traditions, the University of Tennessee welcomed representatives from Bristol Motor Speedway and NASCAR driver Austin Dillon to campus today for an event celebrating the coming college football season and the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol a week before kickoff.
UT and Bristol announced last October the Battle at Bristol, the football game between the Volunteers and the Virginia Tech Hokies set for Sept. 10, 2016 at the speedway, which is anticipated to be the largest crowd to ever see a football game. Tennessee sold out its allotment of 40,000 tickets nearly three years in advance as part of an expected crowd of 160,000.
ESPN's Shannon Spake, who has covered both NASCAR and college football for the network served as Master of Ceremonies for the event in the Gate 21 Plaza at Neyland Stadium.
"When you think about great environments in sports, it's impossible to overlook Neyland Stadium and Bristol Motor Speedway," Spake said.
Jones and staff led Dillon and a crew from the SEC Network on a tour of the Anderson Training Center and Neyland Stadium that included Dillon trying his hand at a quarterback challenge under the watchful eye of Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
"We talk to our players about surrounding yourself with champions," Jones said of the Sprint Cup Series rookie, who brought the famed No. 3 car back to NASCAR's highest level this season for car owner and grandfather Richard Childress. "Being able to welcome Austin Dillon here today is very special."
In addition to the tour and drills, which led Jones to quip that he had found his new starting quarterback, UT presented Dillon with a signed football helmet, a personalized game ball and a Team 118 brick that came with a reminder from Spake to not use on the track to draw a debris caution. He also got a standing invitation from Jones.
"He's welcome to come here and be on our sideline any time he has the opportunity," Jones said.
Dillon was impressed with what he saw at every stop on the UT campus, particularly the graphic up all over the football complex for the Battle at Bristol. He was also blown away by the feeling of entering Neyland Stadium for the first time.
"I definitely got pumped up today," Dillon said. "I have to thank Tennessee, they opened everything up and showed us what a great facility they have here. Walking in Neyland today, the prestige that it shows, it's an unbelievable place. When they walk into Bristol, they'll have that same feeling."
Dillon said he planned on taking Jones up on his offer to see a game at UT this fall. The day also planted a seed in his mind for a change in his walk-out music at the Irwin Tools Night Race in a couple of weeks.
"There's a lot of UT fans that come to the race," Dillon said. "They've made a good case for Rocky Top."