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Dillon ready for pressure that awaits in bringing the No. 3 back to Cup
Richard Childress Racing’s iconic, stylized No. 3 will make its return to the Cup Series for the first time since February 2001. That will undoubtedly be one of the sport’s biggest headlines heading into the 2014 Daytona 500, as Childress promotes grandson Austin Dillon to the seat Dale Earnhardt made famous. And the expectations that come with carrying one of the most recognized and revered numbers in motorsports history are not lost on him.
Childress, in fact, believes Dillon is the man to face them head-on. “We had quite a few discussions on it,” Childress says. “Sure, there’s pressure, but I think the pressure from the number drives him.”
The stats back the claim. The 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, Dillon also has a Camping World Truck Series title to his credit (2011). He comes from a racing pedigree — the Childress connection is well documented, and his father is former journeyman racer and current RCR general manager Mike Dillon. Childress made it clear that Earnhardt would approve of the move, claiming that “The Intimidator” wanted a replacement who could compete for titles, year in and year out.
RCR, as expected, is throwing every resource at this venture to ensure that happens. Sponsorship comes from Dow Chemicals, General Mills and Bass Pro Shops, strong sources of funding to ensure competitive equipment. Earnhardt-Childress engines are ultra-durable, with just one failure among all three RCR teams in 2013, and that means that if Dillon avoids trouble, his cars should be running at the end of the day. Crew chief Gil Martin engineered three third-place points finishes over the last four seasons for Kevin Harvick, and he has been a mainstay at the company since 2000. He’ll provide veteran leadership that will be critical to the young driver’s success.
But while Dillon has the support system in place, it’s not going to be as easy as the lower divisions appeared to be for the young driver. While RCR equipment is among the best in the Cup Series, several teams can make the same claim, and that means there will be a lot of drivers fighting for real estate on the points chart this year. The teen positions around the Chase cutoff, in particular, will be a slugfest — and Dillon is on that cusp. A Nationwide championship doesn’t guarantee success; just ask Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 19th in the premier series one year removed from an NNS title in a previously top-5 car.
Perhaps the best asset Dillon brings is consistency. He captured the NNS title without a single win, and he doesn’t tear up race cars. To date, his Cup numbers are far from earth-shattering — though 11th- and 14th-place runs at Michigan last year are reason for optimism. Also, a top-3 run-gone-wrong on the final lap at Talladega was impressive in that it showed he had the composure to hang with the big boys. However, running sporadically and for multiple teams did not allow Dillon to establish any kind of rhythm or communication with a crew chief.
Considering the challenges ahead — as a rookie and with the “special circumstances” that come with the ride — a top-20 points finish over a full 36-race slate would be a very successful debut.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He's won titles in two national series and comes from a racing family that enjoys racing anything,” a rival crew chief says. “His dirt experience will serve him well when he goes to the next level. He already has several races in Cup cars so he’ll be able to give quality feedback to his team. … Gil Martin is going to be his crew chief. He has been a proven winner in Cup for a long time, and he’ll help bring Dillon along.”
“He’s driving the 3 (car). Whether people love it or hate it, they’re going to be talking about it,” another crew chief says. “There is going to be all sorts of pressure about driving that car, and the longer it takes him to succeed the more attention he’s going to get from fans and media. He’s also always going to have to battle the perception that he was given the ride and didn’t earn it.”
“Dillon wasn’t bad in faux-RCR stuff and in the 14 (car) last year,” a media member points out. “Though I sometimes wonder about his killer instinct. I’m not convinced a poor finish really hurts his heart — unlike his brother Ty, who strikes me as the one with a little chip on his shoulder.”
No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: Dow Chemicals/General Mills/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: N/A
Best points finish: N/A
Hometown: Lewisville, N.C.
Born: April 27, 1990
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Dillon courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro