For Austin Dillon, 2016 was defined by consistency. The third-year driver for Richard Childress Racing finished 20th and 21st in his first two seasons in NASCAR’s Premier Series, but last year he appeared to find his stride, scoring career highs in top 5s and top 10s — enough of them, in fact, to secure a Chase spot on points. But how good was Dillon, really?
A closer look at the numbers says that while Dillon put together his best run to date, there’s still work to be done. His 13 top 10s cover a third of the season — not too bad. His four top 5s were good but not stellar, though, in the context that Dillon had never had more than one in a season before, and that it’s on par with a couple other Chase drivers (and double Jamie McMurray’s total).
So it’s safe to say that last year was a good one, if not a great one.
Going into the new season, though, the pressure is on Dillon not only to repeat his performance, but also to improve on it — and to win. Dillon hasn’t yet broken through in that category, and as he enters his fourth full season in the top division, he’s going to have to start answering to his sponsors if it doesn’t happen. Right now, though, they seem content and willing to wait for the driver to come into his own. Dow Chemical, American Ethanol, Bass Pro Shops and AAA will all return for another run in 2017.
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Dillon is also going to have to answer to NASCAR Nation. Driving the No. 3 car made famous by Hall of Fame driver Dale Earnhardt, Dillon faces a bit of heat on that front as well, because of the size of the shadow he’s in and the seeming ease of his rise through the ranks. He’s handled it fairly well, though, and has matured greatly in the last three seasons, another contributing factor to his success.
One person Dillon likely won’t have to answer to is his car owner — Childress is his grandfather — so he doesn’t face the same pressure that another youngster might (ironically, that’s also exactly why he does get questioned by others). That means he’s performing more for pride than ride, and as long as the sponsors are happy, he’ll be as secure as it gets. It also means that at the end of the day, Dillon can focus on racing.
Slugger Labbe will call the shots for Dillon again this season. Labbe joined the No. 3 team as crew chief midway through 2015, so he has had a big hand in Dillon’s improvement as a driver. Labbe is one of the most experienced crew chiefs in NASCAR, with nearly 20 seasons on top of the box. The one question mark on Labbe? A relative lack of production. He has only five career wins, and Dillon’s career-high 13 top-10 runs also mark Labbe’s career best. But his résumé isn’t laden with elite drivers and teams, and he meshes well with Dillon, which is the most important thing. The pair communicates well.
RCR’s strength in recent years has been consistency. While the organization has not quite hit on the combination that keeps all three teams in Chase contention, there are always one or two drivers who perform well week-in and week-out. While they’re not racing for the win every week, they’re running well enough to get by — and if the circumstances play into their favor, they’re in the right spot to steal a win.
The team’s other strength is its engine program. Earnhardt Childress engines may not be quite as powerful as Hendrick engines, but they’re the most durable in the sport. It’s a rare sight to see an ECR engine not go the distance, and they’re certainly not so far off the competition that they don’t put drivers in good position.
The task Dillon has this season is to remain as consistent as he was during the 2016 season while improving his running and finishing positions. It won’t be easy, but it’s time for Dillon to make that step if he and his team are truly capable.