Austin Dillon 2013 year in review
December 10, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
This is the first in a series of 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series driver recaps that will be featured on NASCAR.com.
Austin Dillon’s NASCAR future is the subject of a major announcement Wednesday when it’s expected the newly crowned Nationwide Series champ will formally step up into the big leagues full-time and drive the iconic No. 3 for his grandfather Richard Childress in the Sprint Cup Series.
As everyone excitedly starts to make predictions about what the 23-year old Dillon is going to do in the years to come, it’s a good time to look at what he’s already done. Plenty.
“I’m excited to get to that announcement, but right now we’re just celebrating this championship,’’ a still beaming Dillon said at the year-end Awards Banquet at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel.
In hoisting the Nationwide Series trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway a month ago, Dillon joined only two drivers -- Johnny Benson and Greg Biffle -- to win titles in both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series.
Dillon’s No. 3 AdvoCare Chevrolet sat on the pole six times in a seven-week summer stretch and a series-best seven times in all. He earned 13 top-five finishes and 22 top-10s and he ranked first or second in the standings for 14 weeks including the final 11 races.
In what culminated with a tight championship contest between Dillon and Penske Racing’s Sam Hornish Jr., Dillon clung on to the top spot for the final five races, most importantly by a three-point margin after the season finale.
It’s the first time the NNS season champion did not win a race, but Dillon doesn’t consider that a blemish. In one sense, it’s a source of pride.
“It’s pretty cool, it’s different, no one’s ever done it before,’’ Dillon said.
“We had some great opportunities to win races this year and we weren’t able to accomplish it. You get kicked a bunch during the year when those things don’t happen for you and you just keep thinking there’s a big picture at the end. You just think positive that what’s coming up next is the big picture. And taking home that big trophy at the end of the year was like having 10 wins.’’
He came close nearly that many times, finishing second or third in seven races -- nearly a quarter of the season. He had three runner-up showings -- at Iowa, Kentucky and Charlotte. And he only finished worse than eighth once after July -- a 12th place showing in the Homestead finale that was still good enough to land the championship.
“With 10 weeks to go, I kept saying we wanted top-fives from there on out and we finished top-five in seven out of nine and two of those were sixth place,’’ Dillon said. “The last race was terrible, but we did a good job of staying consistent. Being consistent was the biggest thing for us, that and our guys building rock solid cars.
“If you look at our season, we built all our points up in the summer months. That’s when we’re racing every weekend. Our guys stay pumped up, they love to work hard and stay late and put in the extra time.’’
It’s a work ethic Dillon shares and one he expects will be crucial as he moves up to race NASCAR’s best full time in 2014.
He expects the experience of a difficult championship fight this year combined with the familiarity of having raced so many of the Cup drivers in Nationwide events to be a huge plus for him.
And, Dillon got an 11-race Cup intro this year, driving with three different teams. It included an unexpected two-race opportunity replacing Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevy after the three-time Cup champ was sidelined with a season-ending broken leg.
Dillon’s best finish was 11th at the first Michigan race driving the No. 33 Chevy, but he impressed people just as much with his 14th place effort at the fast two-miler in the second race when he jumped in Stewart’s car on short notice.
“Next year is definitely going to be a tough year,’’ Dillon allowed. “I watched (2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year) Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) make the transition and other guys who were very competitive in the Nationwide Series go up.
“It’s not like they can just go out there and win races. A good run was a top-10 it seemed like. You have to take those and use them as wins, get your confidence up and gain experience.
"Getting laps and that experience is important. You’ve got to finish races, you can’t wreck because every lap counts and that’s what will make you better the following year."
Dillon is also very aware that driving the No. 3 will pose unique challenges. The last time it ran in the Cup Series, the late seven-time champion and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt was driving it for Dillon’s grandfather. Since his earliest days racing Dillon has used the No. 3, a nod to his hero Earnhardt.
"It’s going to be tougher obviously,’" Dillon said. "I’d like to go out there and win every race and set the world on fire, but we have to set realistic goals. But what we’ve gone through for four years will help me prepare for that.
"We’re going to fight hard for everything we can and take the little victories as we go. I’m excited."