On Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Team Penske Ford, thoroughly dominated the Bank of America 500, leading 227 of 334 laps to capture the checkered flag and the “hall pass” bye to the Eliminator 8 round of the Sprint Cup Chase. Having struggled early in his career prior to joining Team Penske, Logano’s performance and post-race burnout celebration showcased the essential confidence that a Championship-contending race car driver requires.
Less visible but just as telltale, Austin Dillon, the young gun driver of the infamous #3 Chevy SS for Richard Childress Racing, was on fire this weekend with one of the best races of his Sprint Cup Career, bringing a 7th place showing home as the highest-finishing non-Chase driver. Dillon ran in the top 10 for much of the day and bested his two veteran teammates, including chaser Ryan Newman as well as Paul Menard.
Moreover, in the XFINITY Series support race on Friday, Dillon won both the pole and the race, completing the XFINITY Series sweep of both races at Charlotte this year. Apparently, the celebratory fireworks that grazed Dillon during pre-race ceremonies lit the proverbial fire under his seat while strapping into his car.
Critical to this weekend’s stand-out performance appears to be Dillon’s reborn confidence, which is something that Dillon seemed to lack in his debut year in the Sprint Cup series. “I think more aggressiveness at the end of these races will help me,” Dillon declared. “We need to be more confident in late-race restarts. We need to put ourselves in a better position to win some races.”
Dillon has shown the groomed talent of a gentlemanly racer, but NASCAR seems to demand a higher standard of aggressiveness and willingness to take risks on the track, sometimes stuffing your car nose in to create room for a pass where no hole may exist.
Dillon has had his past dust-ups with drivers such as Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, but has generally taken a middle of the road conciliatory stance. Part of this attitude is likely driven by the tutelage of his grandfather who owns the RCR team, thereby ensuring good relations with corporate sponsors and not make waves.
Furthermore, Dillon took ample criticism from many legacy fans, who consider the immortal #3 car number to be the property of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. These enthusiasts could not imagine that any driver would ever fill the seat of their iconic champion who was larger than life. To these stalwarts, the consensus was that Dillon had poached the #3, spoiled silly by his grandfather as a precocious protégé who had never to want for a ride or the best equipment. Like Logano early in his career, some considered Dillon to be the “young punk” on the block, an instigator without the street cred in the garage.
Yet, Dillon has paid his dues, having already competed in five seasons in NASCAR’s three top series. After winning Rookie of the Year in the Camping World Truck Series in 2010, Dillon won the Truck Series championship in 2011, and later the XFINITY Series Championship in 2013, also one year after earning that series’ Rookie of the Year title.
Last year in his Sprint Cup debut, Dillon struggled with the expectations of driving the notorious #3 for his grandfather’s team. His average finish of 18th over the course of that season was less than promising. Those struggles continued into the first half of this season.
As a result in June, RCR made a crew chief swap, with Richard “Slugger” Labbe taking over responsibilities for Dillon’s #3 team. With Labbe having almost 25 years of experience in the garage, his leadership for Dillon in the middle of the season offered a fresh look for a team that had underperformed.
Since his pairing with Labbe, Austin Dillon is showing not only speed in qualifying, but starting to put together a full set of results over the entire race.
Examining the eight recurring tracks (Charlotte, Dover, Loudon, Richmond, Bristol, Michigan, Pocono, and Daytona) that the Sprint Cup series is visiting for the second time this season, Dillon’s ability to finish stronger is most evident:
- During the 1st half of the season, Dillon averaged a finish of 18th, similar to last year
- Looking at the same eight tracks since July, Dillon’s average finish has improved to 14th, with three of those runs in the top 10
After running just one XFINITY Series event last year, Dillon also has ramped up his XFINITY schedule for the 2015 season to enhance his confidence to compete more doggedly. That approach has paid dividends as well, where Dillon has already won four of the 16 races in which he has competed this year. In contrast, Dillon’s 2013 XFINITY Series championship was unusual because he did not win any races that season, instead pointing his way to the championship.
When team owner Richard Childress announced the return of the #3 car to the NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, he declared “This one is going to be special.” Yet, devotees of the #3 RCR legacy are not a patient sort.
In carrying on his family’s tradition, Dillon has the opportunity to be the first driver in NASCAR history to win separate titles in all three of the national touring series if he can ever capture the Championship at the Sprint Cup level. While idealistic and likely not imminent, the combination of Dillon and Labbe are taking baby steps in that direction by showing top 10 speed that might prove worthy of a Chase qualifier bid next season.
By Ronald Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged