Driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing
Austin Dillon punched his 2018 playoff ticket early, winning the Daytona 500 in aggressive fashion — and that should surprise nobody. Dillon isn’t shy when it comes to doing what it takes to win. He’s proven he can win in a capable car, having won titles in both the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and Xfinity Series. The real question is how far Richard Childress Racing can take him.
Dillon’s 2018 playoff run ended after three races. He was in good company, though; seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones were also eliminated after the first round. Talent wasn’t the issue: Dillon simply had equipment that wasn’t up to par with the contenders who advanced deeper in the playoffs.
With a pair of wins under his belt, Dillon, who turns 29 in April, has shown he can race with the best at the Cup level, but whether his RCR cars can keep up with the competition is another story. RCR was once Chevrolet’s top team, but that hasn’t been the case in almost 20 years. The organization can win races but has not shown it has the depth to run consistently in the top 10.
That’s not all on Dillon, but as he enters his sixth full Cup season, inexperience is no longer a valid reason for underperformance. A change was necessary to move forward, and to that end, Childress has reunited Dillon with crew chief Danny Stockman Jr., with whom Dillon won his Truck and NXS championships. They obviously click, and that could help the team make changes to improve each week at the track. Stockman led new RCR teammate Daniel Hemric to a third-place finish in NXS points last year, so he may be extra valuable if he can help crew chief Luke Lambert adjust to Hemric quickly, allowing the two teams to collaborate constructively. Stockman is in great position to understand what both drivers need, and his addition may prove to be RCR’s key offseason move.
There’s been no news from RCR on sponsorship, but no news could be good news. Dow Chemical and American Ethanol, Dillon’s two main backers, should be satisfied with his progression.
Here’s a brash, aggressive, hungry driver reunited with his championship crew chief. But what about the cars and engines? That’s where the questions become more difficult to answer. RCR hasn’t enjoyed the success of its fellow Chevy teams in recent years, but they have won races, so they’re not a total dud. Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines’ power is strong and durable and has been a threat at restrictor plate tracks since well before its current incarnation, when Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Andy Petree Racing formed a three-way alliance with RCR to create more speed for all three organizations.
But restrictor plates will be a thing of the past after the Daytona 500 this year, replaced by the tapered spacers that will cut horsepower but give the driver a different feel. This, coupled with drastic aerodynamic changes, will force everyone to adapt. But for a team like RCR, a step behind, the ability to do that quickly could vault them into a better position. If they don’t, it’ll be hard to move beyond the status quo of a middle-class team simply struggling to make the postseason each year.
As a driver, Dillon is hitting the point in his career when he needs to prove himself capable of the next step. Childress is his grandfather, so his ride is secure, but his reputation is less so. Dillon needs to find consistent production to move to the next level. If he doesn’t do that, he’ll forever be dogged by the shadow of nepotism. He’s shown himself capable at the lower levels, but he needs to both make the playoffs and advance past the first round if he’s to move the team forward.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 60/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)