If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, here’s the good news: Austin Dillon improved his starting position by a solid two spots in 2019 on the strength of winning three poles. The not-so-good news: He was down from the previous year in virtually everything else. Dillon failed to win a race or even post a top-5 finish last year. His six top 10s were also a drop. He did lead more laps than he did in 2018 but totaled only 70 for the year, and he finished off the lead lap in 18 races. His average finish dropped two full positions as well.
The question for Dillon shifts entering his seventh full-time NASCAR Cup Series season. It used to be about when the former Xfinity and Truck Series champion would have his breakout year in Cup. Now, it’s becoming whether he’s going to have one at all.
Dillon does have job security on his side. His grandfather owns the race team, so Dillon is going to get a lot more chances than he otherwise might. Of note, Richard Childress Racing released teammate Daniel Hemric after just one season in the Cup Series. RCR equipment is certainly durable; Dillon failed to finish three races last year, but none due to mechanical issues.
Which does raise the question of whether the struggles the No. 3 team endured last year were car- or driver-related. When you consider that both Dillon and Hemric struggled, along with the No. 13 and No. 43 satellite teams, that suggests it’s the former. RCR had a pair of wins in 2017 with Dillon and Ryan Newman, but the last multiple-win season before that was in 2013, when Kevin Harvick claimed four victories. And Harvick failed to capture a Cup title with RCR yet landed one the year after he left.
So, has RCR lost another step in the last few seasons, or is Dillon running at the top of his ability and simply not able to elevate his cars above where he’s finishing? It’s most likely a combination of both to some degree. To that end, Dillon will be reunited with 2018 crew chief Justin Alexander, with whom he has both of his career Cup wins.
Dillon has solid sponsorship for 2020, with few changes. But it is reportedly a contract year for Dow, which does add a little pressure to the driver who turns 30 in April. A win and subsequent playoff berth would go a long way toward keeping support coming for the No. 3.
Dillon has shown that he can win, with victories in both 2017 and 2018. But he needs to be able to back that up with consistent finishes. He’s had double-digit top-10 finishes only once, in 2016, and that was good enough for a playoff appearance despite the lack of a win. If Dillon can repeat that number, he could squeak into the postseason again this year.
In any case, Dillon has to build and maintain that level of consistency to shed the questions surrounding his ability. And if he’s going to establish himself and RCR as something more than a mid-tier team at best, he needs to put together a solid season in the short term and worry about being a legitimate contender later. It’s time for this talented driver to race with some consistency at the Cup level.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 100/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)