Austin Dillon set for big leap
Compared to what likely lies ahead, Saturday night was a breeze for Austin Dillon.
Dillon and his younger brother and fellow race car driver, Ty, returned to High Point University — where they attended before competing full-time in NASCAR’s upper classes — along with their grandfather and car owner Richard Childress as the headliners in a Richard Childress Racing night promotion at HPU’s men’s basketball game.
Parked on the pavement outside the Millis Center were examples of the cars that the Dillons will drive this season — Austin in NASCAR’s premier Cup series and Ty in the Nationwide Series as both move up one level — Ty sliding into the car that Austin vacated.
An hour before the start of the game — a 78-67 Panthers win over UNC Asheville — the Dillons and Childress sat at a small table just inside one of the entrances to the court area and signed autographs. During one timeout during the game, the three were recognized as they stood at midcourt and received a standing ovation. During another timeout, Ty Dillon and his crew chief, Danny Stockman, raced remote control cars, with Stockman winning handily.
During the autograph sessions, the line moved smoothly, with Childress able to chat casually with well wishers, as there was no overwhelming rush to surround members of one of NASCAR’s most high profile teams, the only Cup operation left in the area.
As for media, there was only one newspaper reporter and camera crews from two local television stations.
The media and public attention ramps up this week, particularly for Austin Dillon, the first to drive the No. 3 in the Cup Series since Dale Earnhardt was killed 13 years ago on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Childress, with the help of NASCAR (which controls all car numbers), kept the No. 3 out of circulation on the Cup level until now, not wanting it used by someone outside of his family or the Earnhardts, although both of the Dillons have used it in the lower divisions. The return of the iconic number sparked backlash from some Earnhardt faithful.
If being a rookie on the Cup Tour isn’t hard enough, the number will make Dillon one of the big stories this week during the annual preseason NASCAR media tour, which will include journalists from around the world, and a big story when the season cranks up at Daytona next month.
“Everything about the No. 3 has been solid,” Austin Dillon said. “I’ve enjoyed talking to people about it. Everybody has been great. Getting to Daytona is going to be fun and a blast. I’m sure all the media and fans will be wanting to see what is going to go on.”
Childress became accustomed to massive attention when he began winning races and championships with Earnhardt nearly 30 years ago. Austin Dillion got attention driving the No. 3 to a Truck Series championship in 2011 and last year’s Nationwide title. But, that likely will be nothing close to the attention he will receive this year in becoming one of the faces of RCR as he and Newman join Paul Menard on Childress’ Cup roster following the departures of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton.
“It is a different level,” Dillon said. “You’ve just got to be prepared when you go to that level. Staying focused and taking every bit of information that you can is the biggest thing. I’m going to lean on the experience of the team.”
Dillon has experience on which he can lean from the crew that prepared Harvick’s cars, led by veteran crew chief, Gil Martin.
“The guys have been together quite some time,” Dillon said. “That’s an advantage for a rookie.”
And what advice has his grandfather offered?
“This year will take a lot of more commitment from him and that’s what you’ve got to have,” Childress said. “You’ve just got to prepare yourself for it.”
With the driver changes, Newman becomes the most experienced and accomplished, with 17 wins (the last at Indianapolis last year) over 14 seasons. Menard had one win in seven seasons.
Childress isn’t worried about having one less veteran on the Cup level.
“Not really,” Childress said. “Austin has won championships in everything he’s run. He’s run with the Cup guys in Nationwide and Trucks, and showed that he could race with them. That’s why I moved guys like Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer to Cup because I saw they could race with the Cup guys in Nationwide and Trucks.”
Dillon makes his move to Cup in a year in which NASCAR is expected to make changes in the format for the Chase for the Championship and has already changed the format for qualifying in all three of the top series — scrapping single-car runs for elimination sessions in which cars can be on the track at the same time.
Childress and both of his grandsons praised the qualifying changes for the potential of injecting excitement in a process that was boring, but they said it was too early to say what strategy teams might use. Childress and Austin Dillon declined comment on possible changes in the Chase that have been made public, with Childress saying not all of the changes were included in published reports that said the Chase would be expanded to 16 drivers, with race winners automatically admitted and drivers eliminated from contention as the Chase progresses.
Austin Dillon also makes his move to Cup in a year that offers eight drivers competing for the tour’s rookie of the year award. Of the other seven, just one, Kyle Larson replacing Juan Pablo Montoya at Ganassi Racing, will be driving for what is considered a top-line team.
“It’s going to be a heck of a battle,” Dillon said. “I’ve won rookie of the year at every level in my career. I want to keep that going, so that’s important to me and to RCR. That’s our main focus. But we also want to get a win. And far as the team, it’s about coming together and making laps and building for next year.”
The building comes amid trying to live up to the legend associated with the iconic number on his car. The increased pressure and scrutiny associated starts building this week.