When Austin Dillon crossed the finish line to win the 60th running of the Daytona 500, the entire season changed for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team. Quickly after the celebrations on pit road and in Victory Lane, the team switched gears and began to think about how this early victory would change their approach to the rest of the 2018 season.
With the victory in Sunday’s race, Dillon and the No. 3 team were essentially locked into the 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs. Dillon pointed out the win provided momentum and took a lot of pressure off himself and the crew guys, but he was quick to point out they needed to keep the pressure on the competition.
“We need to get as many bonus points as we can to go and win a championship,” Dillon said.
The security of knowing they will likely be in the Playoffs allows the team to experiment more, be more aggressive with strategy, help their teammates on the No. 31 team and focus on the tracks in the Playoffs.
“This is really big,” said crew chief Justin Alexander. “Being pretty much locked into the Playoffs, we are able to be really aggressive with what we do on the racetrack. Instead of trying to points race or be conservative on pit calls and strategy, we can be very aggressive. It allows us to take more chances to win races. Also, we can do that with stages to try and get stage points.”
“After you win the biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500, the emotions and excitement are crazy and over-the-top,” said Andy Petree, vice president of competition at RCR. “Then you let it sink in and realize the implications that win has on the rest of the season. We’re able to go out there and do a lot of things to try and gain playoff points, put ourselves in a better position because we’re essentially guaranteed a spot in the Playoffs.
“It takes pressure off, but it also adds an element of pressure back on to go out there now and try to set yourself up for the Playoffs and not just be in them, but to try to move from round to round and win the championship,” Petree said.
A Short Daytona 500 Celebration – Getting Ready for Atlanta
For a lot of the team members, that thought process began shortly after celebrating the Daytona 500 win.
“In the garage area as we were tearing the car down we were talking about how cool it was to be essentially locked into the Playoffs after the first race,” said Petree. “That’s a real big benefit. We’ve seen over the years that the cars that lock in early seem to have a bit of an advantage because of how they approach the season.”
“Right after Victory Lane when we were tearing the car down, Seth (Chavka, race engineer) and I and the rest of the guys, we really started talking about the future,” said race engineer Ryan Sparks.
“All we do is think about race cars. That’s not only our job, it’s our lives. We eat, breathe and sleep this stuff. Immediately we were right back thinking about Atlanta,” said Sparks.
While Sparks and Petree began thinking of this new approach right after the race win, Alexander said he “honestly keeps forgetting about it.”
“I keep forgetting that we’re in the Playoffs, and sometimes I even forget we won the Daytona 500,” he said after the organization’s Daytona 500 celebratory luncheon. “It still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. We are making plans right now for Atlanta. We are already doing things right now that we wouldn’t have done in the past in Atlanta. It’s a really good thing to have this monkey off our back in Week 1 of the season. Now we can roll through the rest of the year and – not cruise – but do things quite a bit different.”
That new approach begins this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the second race weekend of the 2018 season.
“We’re going to be very aggressive,” said Sparks. “We don’t have to worry about points, we can go for stage wins and make some aggressive pit calls we normally wouldn’t make. I feel like Austin, as a driver, will be more aggressive as well because he doesn’t have to worry about tearing up a car or falling out of a race because we’re already essentially locked into the Playoffs.”
Taking More Chances and Being Aggressive is Now At The Top of the Playbook
Alexander indicated the increased aggressiveness applies not only to the race but also to practice and qualifying.
“We can try different setups, try things we probably wouldn’t typically try because we are essentially locked in the Playoffs,” he said. “It really just sets the tone for the next 25 races until the Playoffs start.”
While the team certainly enjoyed the celebration after winning the Daytona 500, race engineer Seth Chavka quickly pointed out the team was already one day behind the rest of the competition preparing for this weekend’s race in Atlanta.
“We had to stay down it Daytona one extra day,” he said with a laugh. “The win just allows everyone to take a little bit of a step back. It allows our pit crew and road crew to focus on the details. That little bit of extra pressure that is put on you to win is now off and we can focus on the details that will allow us to get to that next level.”
If anything, the Daytona 500 means more opportunity throughout the year for Dillon and the entire No. 3 team.
“It has created more opportunity for wins and opportunities to bring more trophies back to Welcome,” Sparks said with a big smile.