Ty Dillon described his suiting up for a Tuesday afternoon video conference as “unique,” and with understandable reason.
As he donned a short-sleeved polo for his media session, he glanced in the mirror and noticed the logo of Toyota’s overlapping ellipses below his left shoulder. In any other instance over the course of a NASCAR career that began in 2011, the emblem would have been the familiar bowtie of longtime partner Chevrolet. Dillon had flown that banner in all 365 of his previous national-series starts, and grandfather Richard Childress’ venerable team has been a Chevy loyalist for 50-plus years.
Dillon, though, noted “things change and times shift.” That transition means the 28-year-old driver’s bid for next month’s Daytona 500 will come in the No. 96 Camry as part of a newly announced agreement with Gaunt Brothers Racing and team owner Marty Gaunt.
“As things opened up, I’m very thankful that Toyota and Marty looked at me as an individual, as a person, as a race-car driver and gave me a chance, to not tie me to not only my family but my past ties and to believe in me,” said Dillon, who also will have backing from Bass Pro Shops and Black Rifle Coffee Company in The Great American Race. “This means absolutely the most to me. I love loyalty and I love people believing in me. If you show me you believe in me, you’ve got me forever. So I really appreciate the opportunity, and I’m very thankful.”
Dillon competed the last four seasons full time in the NASCAR Cup Series, but his status turned uncertain when Germain Racing ceased operations at the end of 2020. Enter Gaunt, who jumped to sign Dillon for Daytona.
Gaunt says his organization is scaling back to a part-time effort this season, one year after a full-season run with Daniel Suarez in a campaign that began with a heartbreaking DNQ at Daytona. The team owner said the organization would focus on superspeedway and road-course events this year, but nothing is “set in stone” for its partial schedule and Dillon is at least in the discussion for more 2021 events.
“We’ve got to get out of the gate,” Gaunt said. “We’re going to get to Daytona and then see what we can figure out down the road.”
Through it all, Dillon said he never doubted his abilities. Though his 2020 scorecard reflects a 26th-place landing spot in the final driver standings, Dillon punched above his weight at select junctures, including a career-best third-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway last fall and a strategy-savvy stage win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.
“I feel like I’m a very capable driver that should be in a full-time ride,” said Dillon, who added he’d considered a return to Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series competition as his next career move. “But like I said earlier, I’m not going to sit and dwell on what’s not there. … I’m very excited for the opportunity, and all I’m looking for is and all I’ve been looking for this offseason is just a little bit of light, just the door to just crack open a little bit so that I can blow it down.”
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It’s the latest adjustment in what has been a fairly dramatic last several months for the next-generation pilot. Dillon was among the first drivers to come forward with open eyes and ears during the nation’s social unrest last summer, with his willingness to listen and learn standing out as a guiding example in the garage. Months later, his family grew to a party of four, with son Kapton waiting out Texas Motor Speedway’s postseason rain delay like the rest of the industry, born Oct. 29, a day after the Wednesday checkered flag. “Three hours to the good,” Dillon said about his rushed arrival time for the birth in North Carolina, having hitched a ride on Jimmie Johnson’s plane to get there.
All of this plus the offseason career limbo. Now there’s also the matter of keeping track of a new manufacturer in 2021, lest he make a reference to “our No. 96 Chevr- … I mean, Toyota” during any interviews.
“It might be tough, but I’m going to do my very best,” Dillon said. “I get to race these cars for a living, so I better get it right on TV when I get to talk about them.”