Solid run at Daytona equals first top-five finish for the freshman
Since Austin Dillon won the pole for the Daytona 500, there hasn’t been much of a buzz out of the No. 3 camp.
Before the season began, the 24-year-old grandson of team owner Richard Childress was expected to give Kyle Larson a run for the money in the 2014 rookie-of-the-year battle.
“It's huge for us getting a top 10, a top 5; it definitely can change the rookie race,” Dillon said. “We've got some momentum now. We've got the last four races, I think, in the rookie race, and just stay consistent and hopefully we can come out with this thing.
“Our cars have been really fast all year, and we're getting better each week. I feel like we're gaining a little bit, and I'm excited about that.”
Not that the points matter as much as wins with the new Chase system. If either rookie candidate would win a race prior to the Chase and make the playoffs, it would be difficult to argue against him.
And while Dillon is correct that his last three finishes - 17th, 16th and five are significantly stronger than Larson’s 28th, 40th and 36th – the Chip Ganassi racer has posted three top five’s and seven top 10 finishes compared to one top-five and two top 10s for the RCR driver.
“We're hanging in there. Just want to find some more speed at these mile-and-a-halves, get more consistent.”
Dillon’s finishes have been more consistent overall which reflects his current 13th-place in the standings compared to Larson’s 17th-place position after he sustained damage in the 16-car wreck 20 laps into the race.
Larson’s average starting position is 14.8 – better than his veteran teammate Jamie McMurray’s 15.2. Larson also won the pole at Richmond in April, which will be the final race leading into the Chase.
Certainly, Dillon hopes for gains at the four tracks where the Cup tour returns to over the next eight races before the play-offs. He will have the benefit of Gil Martin, an 18-year veteran Cup crew chief to guide his way.
But the bad news for Dillon is Larson has already posted top 10 finishes at three of those four venues - Pocono, Michigan and Bristol -earlier this year.
“But for us, just progressing each and every week and being smart throughout runs and trying to make our cars better throughout a race instead of maintaining, that's one tough spot. You've got to be able to gain through a race and you can't just maintain, where in a Nationwide race or a truck race it's shorter and you can get your car decent in track position and you can kind of maintain that way.
“I feel like our cars are getting better and we've been really harping on that as a group at RCR to make our cars better, and I think we're starting to show.”
Over the next 18 races, Dillon has the opportunity to replace his rough runs with better results as NASCAR calculates only the best 17 races in determining the rookie-of-the-year. Dillon had the first half of the season to pull his program together. Now is the time to deliver.