Austin Dillon turned a few heads in 2020. He wasn't expected to make the playoffs, but he did. Then, he wasn't expected to make it out of the first round. But he did that, too.
It can't be easy for Dillon, who drives for his grandfather's team in the No. 3 made famous by seven-time champion and inaugural Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, because that's an awfully heavy legacy to live up to.
It's also unfair to ask Dillon to live up to it. Richard Childress Racing is a solid second-tier Cup team, but it's not quite at the level of the elite teams. The cars are good, Childress employs smart personnel and ECR engines are good powerplants. Chevrolet backs the team wholeheartedly. The team is good, but they're not championship caliber, at least not now.
Still, Dillon had a solid year last season. His win at Texas in the summer was legit, and it gave him that playoff spot.
And Dillon was surprisingly consistent in the last 10 races, even after he was eliminated in the second round. He finished in the top 12 six times, including a runner-up at Darlington — not title worthy, but not terrible by any standard.
It wasn't a walk in the park. Dillon missed the Daytona road course race after a positive COVID-19 test, and without the win, he'd have missed the playoffs.
Dillon was reunited with crew chief Justin Alexander last year after a year apart. All three of Dillon's Cup wins have come with Alexander at the helm; they also went to Victory Lane once in the Xfinity Series. The communication between driver and crew chief is not something that's easy to create, but Dillon and Alexander jell very well, and with a little more consistency, they have potential to grow further together.
Sponsorship is less clear. As of Dec. 1, RCR hadn't formally announced backing for Dillon. His major sponsors last year were Dow Chemical, Bass Pro Shops, Coca-Cola, and American Ethanol. It's likely he'll retain some if not all of them, but there is a question mark in this column as well, and how many races the team still needs to cover will have an impact.
Dillon enters his eighth year of full-time Cup competition, and for many drivers it would be now or never; owners would be considering another direction if the driver couldn't ramp up the consistent performance. Dillon's likely not under that kind of pressure because he runs for his family team, but he does need to show that he can consistently finish in the top 10 and top 15. He had nine top 10s last year, the second-lowest total in the playoffs, and he has posted double digits in that category only once in his career.
He did lead a career-high 135 laps in 2020, but if he's got more in the tank, it's time to find it, or there will be questions as to whether his equipment is really what's holding him back or if it's the other way around.
The bottom line is that this year, it looks like Playoff competition is going to be stronger than ever. Dillon has made the cut only once without a win, so he will need to step up his performance. He can win his way in, but a backup plan would be a good idea.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 90/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)