Circling the track in the car made famous by his grandfather and NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, pressure has been on the shoulders of one young man for several years. Since the return of the No. 3 Chevrolet hit the high banks of Daytona International Speedway in 2014, Austin Dillon has emerged as a driver that has experienced the ups and downs of Sprint Cup Series racing.
Dillon, 25, has achieved a careers worth of knowledge in his eight years in the NASCAR industry. He’s been on a roller coaster journey, from seeing the ultimate high’s of winning two championships, to the lows of struggling in the Sprint Cup Series.
But again, he’s only 25.
Heading into 2016, Dillon has competed in two full-time seasons at the helm of the No. 3 car. Being the wheelman of the historic number provides pressure within itself, he puts all of the pressure on his back.
Driving for his grandfather, Richard Childress it could raise the question on whether or not he is qualified for an elite ride, or if it was it a given that he would one day drive for “pop-pop.”
Though he has only recorded nine top-10 finishes in his first two seasons, there is reason for optimism within the camp heading into Daytona.
“You never know, Daytona could be our day,” Dillon told Speedway Digest. “The effort is there. Now it’s putting it all together to consistently run up front. The first win comes from running up front and proving that you can lead laps.”
Leading laps is one thing that Dillon has struggled to do in his first two seasons in the Cup Series. The No. 3 team has been out front for just 49 laps in the 72 races that it has been back on track, 19 of which came at Michigan last summer when he finished a career-high fourth. That was just his second top-five finish of his stint in the Cup Series.
“Michigan was a huge boost,” Dillon said. “It proves that I can lead laps and race with the best of the best. I knew I was doing it on Saturday so why couldn’t it come true on Sunday. That’s a fun part of my job is to put that effort in and when it comes out and you race up there.”
As the 2016 season approaches, Dillon’s confidence level continues to increase. Some of that comes with running in the XFINITY Series on a regular basis, getting more track time for the advanced series on Sunday. The 2013 XFINITY Series champion believes that repetition on a racetrack can help at certain citcuts, especially at ones that he struggles on such as Richmond and Dover.
Last season alone Dillon posted four victories in the XFINITY Series while leading over 500 laps in his 20 starts for RCR.
Midway through last season, Dillon teamed up with Richard “Slugger” Labbe and it elevated the performance on the Cup side. From Sonoma on, the No. 3 car had four top 10s, including his scary crash at Daytona when he flipped into the catch fence where his car came to a halting stop.
Though the end results weren’t exactly what the organization was looking for, it is something to build on for the new year. The speed was there to be competitive and compete with the Chase drivers.
Dillon’s two teammates, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard were more consistent than he was in the two previous seasons, but neither of them have won recently, either.
RCR is currently in its longest winless drought as an organization at 73 races, with the last win coming at Phoenix in the fall of 2013 when Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag.
“I think that leading laps is even more than just finishing in the top 10,” Dillon said. “When you run in the top five that is when I do believe the wins will come. So if you start seeing our top-five finishes go up, that means a win is right around the corner.”
As he gains more experience in the big leagues, Dillon has been able to settle in as a person. He has been able to translate his personal life onto the racetrack and perform at a better pace because of it.
“I’m at the point where I’m happy with me as a person,” he said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin. Now, I just want to go perform and win more, win championships and compete and make that name even more than what it is now.”
As Dillon enters his third season in the Cup Series, he is in the best position to make his first career Chase for the Sprint Cup. RCR as a company is communicating better than it has in the previous two seasons as the chemistry has begun to grow within the three teams.
One thing that might slow down Dillon and RCR in general is the loss of Furniture Row Racing as an affiliate. Martin Truex, Jr. is coming off his strongest season, which featured the No. 78 team making it to the championship four, then jumping to Toyota, aligning itself with Joe Gibbs Racing.
However, RCR still works closely with Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing. Newcomers, Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, have been added to the plethora of organizations that are under the RCR wing with technical support.
Dillon has a long NASCAR career ahead of him, but the No. 3 team needs to be better than average. As long as he somewhat performs throughout his career it seems almost guaranteed that he will have a ride with his grandfathers team. In the two seasons that he has competed in he has finishes of 20th and 21st in the points standings. But last year his average finish decreased by over three positions to that of 2014.
Like all teams, Dillon would love to have it no other way that start off the 2016 season with a bang and end up in Victory Lane following 500 miles in Daytona. If a track were to owe a driver anything, it seems like Daytona owes Dillon for the nasty crash that happened last July.
What a storyline that would be, plus the No. 3 car would be back in Victory Lane for the first time just days after the 15-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s tragic crash.