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January 8, 2013

Dillon, RCR Team Ready for Nationwide Series Title Run

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Austin Dillon wants to win the 2013 championship in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series.

Welcome to the club, A.D. So does every other driver -- and many of them stand a good chance. Elliott Sadler, who led the series in points after 25 of the series’ 33 races a year ago, once more has his eye on the prize. As does his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Brian Vickers, who returns to the series full-time a decade after capturing the crown.

Sam Hornish Jr. (Penske Racing), Michael Annett (Richard Petty Motorsports) and Justin Allgaier (likely Turner Scott Motorsports) hope to build on top-10 points efforts from a season ago, and likely will be in the mix. Those are just a few of Dillon's peers who could rise up and capture the spot vacated by two-time series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

With so much tough competition, Dillon understands that contending for the championship, let alone winning it, won’t be easy. The 2012 season -- his first in the series -- confirmed as much.

“The competition level was definitely higher. … We knew what it took to win a truck championship (the year before) and we tried to make the same gains we did in 2011 going into 2012," the 22-year-old Dillon said. "… There were a lot of tracks we’d never been to; a heavier schedule where we were on the road a lot longer. It definitely was a pretty big transition.”

Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team proved to be capable, if not successful, sweeping both 300-mile races at Kentucky Speedway while en route to a third-place points finish. His 16 top-five finishes were only three fewer than Stenhouse's (19), and one more than Sadler's (15). His 27 top-10 finishes led the series.

Heading into his sophomore season, Dillon recognizes there are areas where he needs to improve as a driver and where his team needs to improve as a unit. While there will be a few moves among crewmen for the team, the core of the group, which is led by crew chief Danny Stockman, is back for 2013.

“I’d like to improve on restarts a little bit and (on) the road courses,” Dillon said. "Those two parts are the (big) things I want to improve on. Taking chances and … just continue to be fast throughout the run.

“As a team, I think there are things we can all gain on. We’ve made a little bit of change already with some personnel, and I think that’s going to help.”

Only three of the team’s finishes last season were outside the top 15, and two of those came on road courses: Dillon was 18th at Road America and 23rd at Watkins Glen. Those results are part of the reason the team recently tested at Mid-Ohio, which has replaced Montreal’s road course, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, on the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule.

“I definitely took the initiative to work on it for this year,” Dillon said. “We had a good test at Mid-Ohio. That was the best I’ve felt at a road course since we’ve been going to them. I still need more experience racing around cars; I think that’s the toughest thing. I’m getting to the point where I can go fast on a road course; it’s just learning how to set people up and take the right time to attack.”

Dillon won the Truck Series championship one year after winning the series’ rookie of the year title. Can he repeat that feat in the Nationwide Series, where he nabbed the rookie award last year?

Others have done so on the Nationwide tour: Kevin Harvick (2000-01), Greg Biffle (2001-02) and, more recently, Stenhouse Jr. (2010-11).

Still, it’s a tall order.

“I definitely think the guys who have (Sprint) Cup experience that are coming down, Regan Smith (JR Motorsports), Brian Vickers, Sadler are all going to be up there each and every week,” Dillon said. “All three are in good equipment so they’ll be tough. … The competition level is going to be better than it’s ever been. You’re going to have to step it up.”

To read Kenny Bruce's article as it appears on NASCAR.com, click here.

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