Third generation racer Austin Dillon has lived much of his life in NASCAR’s spotlight. Now in his third full season at the sport’s highest level, the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet is very much in the spotlight, competing for his first Sprint Cup Series championship as part of the 16-driver Chase.
Advancing to the Chase for the Sprint Cup with four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in the regular season, Dillon is not letting the pressure of advancing to next round and competing for a championship get to him.
“I had plenty of pressure just trying to get in the Chase,” said Dillon. “These other guys have been in the Chase almost all year long, so I think the pressure is really on them because they have been relaxed. The intensity for me has been amped up for the last five or six weeks. The guys that have won, they have been able to relax all year. That pressure and sleepless nights will still be ahead for those guys, I’m kind of over that now. I had plenty of them leading up to Richmond. I haven’t carried that stress over into the Chase.”
The road to the Chase was not easy by any means, but when the checkered flag flew at Richmond International Raceway to end the regular season, Dillon explained the stress was simply lifted from his shoulders.
“As soon as I realized I was officially in the Chase, I just took a breath and got excited about the 10 weeks that were ahead of me,” he said. “On Monday after Richmond, we went right to work, but Saturday night there was just a lot of relief. I sleep a lot better now knowing that we accomplished our main goal of making it to the Chase. We’re resetting our goals and looking forward to what happens. Hopefully we can upset a lot of these guys that have been in contention all year.”
While this is the first time Dillon will contend for the title in the Sprint Cup Series Chase format, he does find similarities to his championship runs in the Camping World Truck and XFINITY Series.
“If you go back to my Truck Series championship battle, I feel like I was still really inexperienced,” he said. “I feel like I gained a lot of experience in the XFINITY Series championship run. That is always something I can look toward in this fight for the Sprint Cup Chase. Knowing we have 10 races to really hunker down, focus on those races and use every bit of resources we have, and use them in a smart way. I’m not concerned about any of the Chase tracks, I’m more excited to see what we can prove.”
Dillon certainly knows a thing or two about high expectations. Entering the sport with such a high profile and early successes in the NCWTS and NXS, Dillon’s Sprint Cup career got off to a bang with a pole in his rookie Daytona 500 qualifying effort in 2014. Yet, the path to success has not come easy in the sport’s highest level. In his first two full seasons in Sprint Cup competition, Dillon compiled two top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
However, when this season rolled around both driver and team seemed to come alive, leading them to a spot inside the Chase. Now 26 years old, Dillon said the up-and-down Sprint Cup start has matured him to a level in which he is now more comfortable behind the wheel and more confident to compete for the championship.
“After those first two years, I am now much better at coping with a bad finish or a finish that doesn’t necessarily reflect on where we should have been at the end of the day,” he said. “We ran horrible my rookie season – in my eyes. Knowing how to lose is a big key to success. It’s not good to lose, but if you can let it not kill your momentum or not let it affect you going into the next few races, it can turn your season around.”
One thing that helped turn the tide for Dillon was partnering with veteran crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe. The former Daytona 500 winning crew chief was named the crew chief of the No. 3 team after the June 2015 race at Michigan International Speedway, and the chemistry and results showed right away.
“Working with Slugger has brought back a lot of things I had when I grew up racing; the drive to run up front,” said Dillon. “He races the way I want to race, and that’s aggressive and always trying to find speed. If you don’t have speed, you don’t really have anything. That’s one big thing he’s brought back. He wants to win every practice, qualifying and be fast on the track each time we go out. My whole thing is if you’re not first, you’re not where you want to be. We haven’t done that yet, but it is what we’re striving to do. We’ve won practices, we’ve won qualifying sessions and we’ve raced for the lead, so we’re getting closer.”
Although he is still searching for his first Sprint Cup Series victory, Dillon understands that – much like teammate Ryan Newman did in 2014 – he can advance through the Chase with consistent finishes. However, he knows a victory would go a long way in helping fulfill those championship goals.
“This first round we want to have raw speed to allow us to be in a position where we can choose if we want to take a conservative approach or go for the wins,” said Dillon. “Winning would obviously make things a lot easier, but if we can’t get that done solid finishes are what we need to keep advancing.”