Daytona brings Dillon back on course
July 08, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Austin Dillon's finish in the famed No. 3 Chevrolet at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday didn't get the attention, headlines and hoopla his front-row start at Daytona did in February.
But the Daytona 500 pole winner's fifth-place run in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 this weekend was a career best, vaulting him forward in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings and tightening the Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition.
"It's huge for us getting a top-10, a top-five; 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. … 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."
After dramatically putting the iconic No. 3 on the pole for the Daytona 500 -- the first time the number has been used in Sprint Cup competition since 2001 -- Dillon answered with a ninth-place finish. The impressive start had some figuring the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champ would be a shoe-in for top rookie honors. But the 24-year old has instead experienced a learning curve more typical of first-year drivers in NASCAR's toughest series.
In fact, Sunday's effort was his first top-10 since the Daytona 500. But that, combined with so much of his competition getting tangled in an afternoon of massive pile-ups, helped Dillon emerge from his season low 18th-place in the Sprint Cup standings to 13th entering Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He now leads fellow rookie Kyle Larson (17th) in the overall standings, but still unofficially trails the Chip Ganassi Racing driver 200-185 in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contest.
"Each week you learn a little bit here and there and what it takes to compete at this level,'' said Dillon, who drives for his grandfather's Richard Childress Racing team. "It takes a full weekend from the start of the weekend when you unload off the trailer, and learning that is just ‑‑ it's the hardest level of racing in the world in my opinion, because I've never done anything past this.
"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."
Sunday will mark Dillon's Sprint Cup debut on the notoriously tough New Hampshire miler, but he had two third-place finishes in three Nationwide races there and is optimistic after a solid team test at the track last week.
He is hopeful his uptrend and a recent slide by Larson -- three straight finishes of 28th or worse -- will reignite this rookie competition. Even Dillon had to laugh and shake his head after the race Sunday, figuring that any other season, a 13th-place in the standings would have made him the front-runner for the rookie title. But the 21-year old Larson has had seven top-10s (including a runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway) to Dillon's two.
"Kyle has had a great season and I'm kind of putting our season against his because we're racing for the rookie of the year,'' Dillon said. "That was our main goal going into this year. Any other year it would be a great season, but the way they've run we've put a lot of pressure on ourselves.
"You know, we're hanging in there. Just want to find some more speed at these mile‑and‑a‑halves, get more consistent. Kentucky was a good race for us, just didn't make a good adjustment at the end. Experience will come with that, I hope, and like I said, 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.
"We jumped from 18th to 13th in points,'' Dillon added with a smile. "There's less positions now, but just got to stay consistent. We had a test at New Hampshire this past week. I felt like it was a good test for us, and we go on and try and keep these runs going for us as a rookie, and I think it'll close up the rookie points now, too. We've gained a lot the last couple weeks, and this will definitely help."