Until last July, Austin Dillon had finished his seven previous Cup starts at Daytona International Speedway virtually unscathed.
That streak ended when Dillon was collected in a crash that eliminated one-quarter of the field on Lap 71 of the Coke Zero 400 before the second stage even ended.
Confidence high after Clash
But after finishing fifth in the Advance Auto Parts Clash—in the only Chevrolet in the top five behind four Fords—the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Camaro ZL1 believes he can be a threat in Sunday’s Great American Race.
“That's the fastest we have been at a speedway in a while,” Dillon said. “The last two years, we haven’t been able to compete like that. It feels really good to lead a couple of laps and dice it up. The handling got a little worse when we lost some of the track position, so we will work on that for the 500.
“But, very promising day for our DOW Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. I’m happy. We came out of there without a scratch on the car, and we’ve got something for the 500. All my guys are excited.”
There’s something about seeing the iconic No. 3 Chevy in the lead at Daytona. Dillon won the lottery for the pole position for the Clash and enjoyed the benefit of starting first on Sunday. He led three laps but struggled in traffic. With the introduction of a new Camaro for 2018, the Bow-tie Brigade is still acclimating to the new characteristics of the design.
“Well, it was fun at the beginning,” Dillon said. “It was really fun at the beginning when we had track position. We had a fast car, got some pushes from the No. 22 (Joey Logano) and the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and got to dice it up there. It’s probably the fastest we’ve been at a speedway in about two years to be able to compete with those guys. We lost track position, and my car didn’t drive as good. So, we will make a couple of adjustments going into the Daytona 500.”
Ford's superspeedway prowess
Ford won all four restrictor plate races in 2017. On Sunday, Keselowski won for the first time ever during February Speedweeks, with his Penske teammates finishing second and fourth, respectively. The Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Kurt Busch completed the podium in third.
Dillon, who has one top five and five top 10s in nine starts at Daytona, feels, if he can get the handling right on the No. 3 Chevy, he’ll be able to contend against the Fords.
“We made a move there at the end from pretty far back and got up through there quite a way,” Dillon said. “I was trying to get somebody to go with me, but I think everybody was scared of the Penske train up there that was running. Those top three were pretty hard to get out of the way.
“We'll just have to figure out ways to work together with some of the other Camaros. The ZL1’s are fast. I think Chase (Elliott) and I both had really fast cars, and I really liked working with him, so hopefully we can work good in the race.”
Several competitors in the Clash felt their teams missed the setup, but there will be time to dial the cars in during the Duels on Thursday and three practice sessions between Friday and Saturday. While there are still unknowns with how the cars will handle with 40 drivers on the track in the 500 compared to 17 for the Clash, Dillon was encouraged to have the track time.
Pit crew changes
After NASCAR decreased the number of pit crew members over the wall from six to five for the 2018 season, Dillon felt it was equally important to work with the squad before the 500.
“Yeah, I think it’s a huge advantage to work with the pit crew,” Dillon said. “I know my guys have already said they are going to go back to the shop and try and make the car easier for the guys. We lost a little bit of track position, but I also slid long. It’s really key to get in your box properly the way the pit stops are now. I went a little long and that hurt my guys getting to my car.
“It’s big to be able to go out there and run a full race and see how the cars draft. I didn’t draft any in practice really (Saturday). I was proud of how my car drove, just got to make a few minor things and we will be fine for the 500, I think.”