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Austin Dillon goes into '16 with 'something to prove'

Austin Dillon

WATCH: Dillon talks about which day he would relive if given the chance

Austin Dillon finished 21st in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series points standings last season, and maybe there's someone out there who thinks 'Yeah, OK. Twenty-first isn't so bad.'

That person would not be Austin Dillon.

The grandson of team owner Richard Childress is a former Camping World Truck Series champion. He is a former XFINITY Series champion. He knows the talent that carried him to the top of those series is the foundation that can help him advance in the Sprint Cup Series, where he drives the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet.

But patience can be a difficult thing to harness; it can wear thin like a set of tires left on too long.

"I know I'm developing as a driver," Dillon said during last month's Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. "But I don't want to be looked at as 'hey, the experience is still there, it's coming.' I want to do it this year. I want it now."

Twenty-first is as low as Dillon, 25, has ever finished in a NASCAR national series in which he has competed fulltime. But behind last year's statistics, which mirrored his '14 effort, were signs of improvement.

He led multiple laps at Pocono, Daytona, Michigan and Martinsville and his fourth-place finish at Michigan was a career best.

The majority of those results came after a mid-season crew chief change that saw Richard "Slugger" Labbe replace Gil Martin atop the pit box. It was a move that "gave new life to our team," according to Dillon.

"Leading laps at Michigan, running up front in a lot of races toward the end of the year was big," he said. "I think it was just a good change of momentum.

"The other thing … Slugger has the same mentality that I have toward sports in general, and that is to eliminate mistakes ... figure out how to be the best we can be at every aspect of racing."

"He's brought out a new life in me," Labbe said of the young driver. "I've been doing this for 30 years and having a kid that is so full of energy is really a breath of fresh air for me.

"We saw some success … on the mile and a half tracks. Unfortunately we don't race on mile and a half tracks every week. We've tried to really preach to Austin what he's done really good on the mile and a half tracks and we've pointed out the negatives on the shorter tracks, the tracks we need to work on. He's been really open and receptive to the things we need to work on and we'll keep working on that every week to get him to excel."

The crew chief change wasn't the sole reason for the step up in performance. Dillon admits that the RCR organization as a whole didn't have the speed to contend early in the year. And his confidence waned as a result.

"When you can go out and lead laps, eventually that win is coming," he said. "You have to first be able to lead laps and run up front to accomplish things. Before halfway through the season, I don't think we had the speed to do that and that's hard on your confidence. It's hard to get up for every race and to be confident in what you have.

"We've put a lot of effort into it; I think the equipment is there, now it's putting it all together as a group to get to the front and we're working hard on that."

Dillon is one of three full-time Sprint Cup drivers at RCR. Teammate Ryan Newman, second in the championship battle the previous year, bowed out after two rounds of last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Paul Menard, making his first Chase appearance, fell by the wayside in the opening round of 16.

RCR hasn't seen one of its Sprint Cup teams in the winner's circle since the fall race at Phoenix in 2013.

As a result, Childress said he spent extra time at the team's shops during the winter break, searching for ways to improve a product that has garnered 105 premier series wins and six championships.

"We've got a really good engineering staff; we needed to tweak on it some," Childress, an owner since 1969, said. "Our engine program is as strong as anyone when it comes to horsepower; NASCAR takes those engines back and runs them. We get all the data. There are always little challenges, but trying to get speed in our cars is the biggest thing we've got to do.

"We're there, we're consistent. We've got to make more speed."

The rookie stripe has long since been removed. The "sophomore slump," if such a thing truly exists, has been weathered. It's year number three for Dillon, who begins the season shouldering many of the same burdens that greeted the youngster when he arrived on the Sprint Cup scene two years ago.

"The pressure is always there," Dillon said. "I want to compete.

"With the sponsors I have, the (car number) I have and the family background I have, I want to compete each and every race. There's a fire within me that will never stop burning.

"Even if the pressure isn't there, I feel like it's going to be. I owe it to my grandfather, our company, Welcome, North Carolina, all the people that put effort into my program at RCR to do what I can to win races.

"I think we've assembled a group of guys that feel the same way. They have something to prove."

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