Austin Dillon’s career began with a bang as he brought back the iconic No. 3 car in grand fashion, taking the pole for the Daytona 500. After he finished ninth at Daytona, expectations skyrocketed for a driver many thought would be Rookie of the Year.
The rest of Dillon’s 2014 season? That was spent crashing down to earth. He slumped to 20th in points, missed the Chase and was a distant second for top rookie honors to Kyle Larson, making Dillon one of the year’s massive disappointments.
In his defense, when you bring back a number once synonymous with Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr., there’s going to be a certain pressure to perform. For Dillon, the learning curve is steeper than he faced in either the Camping World Truck or Nationwide series, where the 24-year-old won championships. The competition in Cup is both deeper and fiercer; RCR, at this level, is also a small step behind its main rivals in equipment.
But Dillon did a lot of things right last season that set him up to continue to grow in 2015. Perhaps most important, he finished every race, running more laps last season (10,488) than any driver except Jeff Gordon. Bringing the equipment home in one piece is not something every rookie has done, but Dillon was able to do so on a consistent basis, compiling maximum information in the process. That only gives Dillon an edge coming into the new season.
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What does he need to do in 2015? The answer is easy enough — turn those top-15 performances, of which the rookie had several, into top-10 results worth writing about. He has all the tools in the box to get it done, starting with RCR equipment that’s some of the most durable in the sport. It’s true that to finish first, a driver must first finish, and Dillon has cars that can do that; RCR had a total of one mechanical failure last year among its three cars. Speed, once the strength of this organization, is now its problem. Earnhardt-Childress racing engines were several miles per hour slower than their counterparts, including former powerplant partner and new Hendrick satellite Chip Ganassi Racing.
Dillon has a lot going for him, though. He has a talented veteran crew chief in Gil Martin, who has almost 20 years of experience in NASCAR’s top division. Martin has 16 wins and six top-5 points finishes on his résumé. The team has some powerhouse sponsors in Dow Chemical, Cheerios and American Ethanol — paired with loyal, smaller backers like Realtree — which provide a strong base. Teammate Ryan Newman found a new level of speed for the organization, and that could easily be filtered down the line.
Overall, Dillon is a solid driver who should continue to develop in 2015. All signs point to slow and steady progress, requiring the patience most athletes don’t get these days. But when your owner is also your grandfather — and he pairs you with an iconic car — you’re going to get every opportunity to make this No. 3 return a success.
No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: Dow, Cheerios, American Ethanol, Realtree
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin
Year With Current Team: 3rd
Under Contract Through: Lifetime
Best Points Finish: 20th (2014)
Hometown: Lewisville, N.C.
Born: April 27, 1990
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.