The NASCAR Cup Series was littered with race winners in 2021, making the battle for a Playoff spot one of the fiercest in recent years, and with the final spots up for grabs being doled out at Daytona, it came down to the final laps. Unfortunately for Austin Dillon, that meant that he had to watch and wait from the sidelines after crash damage ended his day early. And when the day ended, Dillon was the driver on the outside looking in at teammate Tyler Reddick.
But the cutoff race doesn’t paint the whole picture. Dillon and Reddick are good for each other as teammates because they each push the other to be better. The addition of Reddick in 2020 elevated Richard Childress Racing as a whole, giving them a pair of drivers who can compete for Playoff spots on a regular basis. Both can bring good information to the table, as the team looks to move from simply a Playoff contender to one that can remain in contention during the final 10 races.
The 2021 season brought mixed results for Dillon. His 14.4 average finish was the best of his eight-year full-time Cup career and a two-spot jump over 2020, but he scored just one top-5 finish and eight top 10s. His lone top 5 came in the season-opening Daytona 500.
There were other hopeful signs. Dillon finished all but three races, and his 27 lead-lap finishes were as good as or better than some of the Playoff drivers. He had good speed during races but often didn’t post the finishes to prove that.
Dillon made himself a top-15 driver last year on average, but he’s never been able to finish consistently in the top 10, and that’s a hurdle he needs to overcome to be a perennial contender. He’s made the Playoffs without a win only once.
RCR is a good fit for Dillon because it’s a family-owned team (Childress is Dillon’s grandfather), and that takes some of the pressure off, but he’s also seen loyalty from a variety of sponsors, including Dow Chemical, Bass Pro Shops and American Ethanol. The team hadn’t announced full sponsorship plans at press time, but it’s likely that those three will be on the car.
Justin Alexander returns to the pit box in 2022. He and Dillon have had some success together, and their radio communications are typically productive. RCR as a whole has found better speed in the last couple of years, as the boost in average finish shows, and the team relies on Alexander’s solid strategy to that end. Alexander is known for major gambles, helping Dillon to his first Cup win in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 on fuel mileage and using a two-tire stop to win Texas (2020). If the No. 3 team gets up to speed quickly with the new car, more opportunities exist.
The team should benefit from its alliance with Trackhouse Racing Team this year, as that team expands to two cars with Ross Chastain and Daniel Suárez. The teams worked closely last year, and Trackhouse was able to contribute good information with good runs at several tracks. That should only improve with the addition of another car and more experience as that team enters its second year.
Dillon has all the pieces he needs to be a solid top-20 driver. With a win, he can be a Playoff driver, but he needs to be a consistent top-10 threat to make the postseason without a victory, or to get past the first elimination. If Dillon can keep his solid average finish and add a few more top 10s and top 5s, he’ll be well on the way to helping RCR become a more prominent player in the sport.