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Austin Dillon: 2018 NASCAR Season Driver Preview

Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon broke into the win column last season, and he picked a big stage: the Coca-Cola 600, where he became just the seventh driver in history to post his first career win in the sport’s longest event. Of the first six, four went on to be Cup Series Champions (David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth, if you’re keeping score at home).  

The question is: Will Dillon become the fifth, or will he wind up more like Casey Mears or David Reutimann, who went the 600-mile distance but didn’t accomplish much else? Dillon needs to answer it soon if it’s going to be the former. At 27, Dillon still has plenty of time; age-wise, he’s on par with Pearson and Kenseth when they broke into Victory Lane and a couple of years younger than Labonte. The difference that hints that his career might trend closer to that of Mears and Reutimann, though, is how long it took Dillon to get there — 2017 was his fourth full-time season in the series. Those championship drivers didn’t take that long to start winning races.

Heading into 2018, Dillon is coming off what was, despite a win and subsequent playoff berth, a mediocre season at best. He had just four top-10 finishes and 12 laps led, leading just three races outside of that Charlotte victory, where he led just two laps en route to the win. He wouldn’t have made the playoff cut on points without a victory.

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To be fair, the Chevrolet camp in general was noticeably behind last season, and RCR was a notch below Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing within the Chevy ranks. But going into 2018, Chevrolet switches models from the SS to the Camaro in the Cup Series, and in early tests, the car posted aerodynamic numbers close to the dominant Toyota Camrys. The cars should be faster, so Dillon will need to step up his game if he’s going to contend for a playoff spot this time around.

The RCR camp has made one serious upgrade this offseason, adding former championship crew chief Andy Petree as vice president of competition. Petree, who wrenched Dale Earnhardt to a pair of championships in the No. 3 car that Dillon now pilots, also worked with RCR and Dale Earnhardt Inc. on an engine program in the late 1990s that produced some of the best, most durable engines in the sport — especially on the restrictor-plate tracks. Petree knows his way around a car, and his experience in the trenches will be an asset to Dillon and teammate Ryan Newman.

Justin Alexander, who joined the No. 3 team just before the Coca-Cola 600, will start his first full season as Dillon’s crew chief. The pair communicates well, and if the cars are more competitive this season, they could post some better numbers than Dillon did last year.

Sponsorship remains secure. DOW Chemical and American Ethanol have been longtime backers of the No. 3.

As Dillon enters his fifth full season, he needs to step things up if he’s going to be a serious contender and break away from the whispers of nepotism as Richard Childress’ grandson. Without a win, he may fall short of a playoff spot with the competition so stacked, and there will be more whispers, this time of falling short of his potential.