Austin Dillon's Time Is Now
Competing With Smoke
Apparently, those schedules didn't conflict too much.
Stewart-Haas Racing announced that Austin Dillon will fill in this week for injured driver and co-owner Tony Stewart. While the announcement was limited to this weekend's race at Michigan, it seems that Austin Dillon's Sprint Cup time has arrived. He has limited Sprint Cup experience but a world of potential that includes numerous wins and a championship at the Camping World Truck series level. The only thing that might have kept him out of car this weekend, time constraints, proved to be less important that his ability to compete for the team right now.
Dillon has already competed in seven races at the Sprint Cup level this season. While his average finish of 24th isn't impressive, it's worth noting that his car has been running at the finish in all seven races. His best Sprint Cup finish, ironically enough, came earlier this year at Michigan where he finished 11th. That finish had to catch the attention of SHR officials when making their decision as to who would drive their car in Stewart's absence.
Post Race Interview After Winning The Truck Series Title
Celebrating A Championship
His grandfather, Richard Childress, has supported both Austin and brother Ty's racing desire for years. And Austin has repaid that support by winning since joining NASCAR's national touring schedule. In 2010, he finished fifth in the Camping World Truck series standings, then came back to win that series' title in 2011. He moved up to the Nationwide series the following year, finishing third in the standings for 2012 and is currently leading the 2013 Nationwide series standings. Between the two series, he has seven wins, 21 pole starts and 43 top five finishes in 118 races. Should he win this year's Nationwide championship, he'll join Greg Biffle as the only driver to win both the Truck and Nationwide titles with a chance to win the Sprint Cup as well.
The long term plan for Austin Dillon has always focused on running a full time Sprint Cup schedule in 2014, likely in the iconic #3. Dale Earnhardt Sr. made the #3 famous running for Childress, winning seven championships before his untimely passing at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. That stylized #3 remained in Richard's garage for a decade before Austin began running it in the Truck series. For many racers, wearing that number would be a burden to heavy to bear and the weight of expectations could crush their performance. He didn't run from the expectations- instead, he embraced them. Dillon freely admitted his connection to the number came because of family; both through Earnhardt and through his grandfather (who ran the number before turning in his firesuit for an owner's clipboard).
In years past. Dillon would be sacrificing his 2014 rookie of the year eligibility by stepping in for an extended period of time. Prior rules stipulated that once a driver hit the ten race mark that it would be their rookie year and any subsequent years would not be eligible for the award. That's why you'd see developmental drivers run a nine race schedule prior to their debut. But now drivers remain eligible for the award as long as they do not choose that series to earn points; as Dillon chose the Nationwide series this season, his Sprint Cup slate remains clean.
Looking Forward To The Experience
Stewart's untimely injury has provided Dillon with the ability to gain invaluable experience heading into his 2014 Sprint Cup “debut”. More than half of his starts to date have come running for underfunded Phoenix Racing. While Phoenix receives equipment and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, it's not the same level of engineering that he'll receive running a Stewart-Haas car. He'll also have a top notch crew servicing the car and a crew chief in Steve Addington who's worked with some of the best drivers in the sport. The car he's driving will be on par or better than every other car on the track and that kind of support only increases a driver's confidence.
Dillon will also gain experience at tracks he's never driven before on the Sprint Cup level. The vast majority of tracks he's run in the past are the intermediate level tracks like Michigan and Texas. Those tracks make up a good portion of the schedule but running on other styles (such as Richmond, Bristol and New Hampshire- all of which are coming up in the next six weeks) will only broaden his knowledge base. Running those kinds of tracks in the Nationwide car is one thing; learning how to handle a Sprint Cup car is an entirely different beast. As a result he'll start 2014 with a working Cup knowledge of virtually every track NASCAR has to offer.
Competing For Stewart's Job?
Prior to making the announcement, Zipadelli said numerous times how important consistency was to the team. So there's every reason to believe that Dillon's run in the #14 car will extend beyond the Michigan race. He also noted that several Nationwide racers were on their radar but that logistical concerns might prevent them from using one at Michigan. Apparently those logistical concerns are not too severe (and were likely overblown in the first place; Mid Ohio is a helicopter ride away from Michigan International Speedway). With the concurrent announcement that Stewart is out “indefinitely”, SHR needed a driver that would both be competitive and finish races. Dillon has already shown his ability in those areas.
Putting Dillon in the #14 does not come without some concerns. No matter how high his talent level, Austin does not have a great deal of experience. Regan Smith, another candidate for the job, has more Sprint Cup starts than Dillon has total stock car racing starts. Ryan Newman is on his way out the door and the only other SHR driver, Danica Patrick, has struggled throughout the season. Newman has little incentive to mentor either Dillon or Patrick. Once Stewart begins to improve physically he will be able to help. But showing up to race with a departing Newman and two rookies is bound to stretch the team's abilities.
Generations Of Racing
What Does Rick Think?
It's also worth noting that Dillon is an outsider who, by the end of the season, will be an outsider once again. His full time future is with Richard Childress Racing, an independent Chevrolet team. SHR uses Hendrick Motorsports engines, chassis, and technical support. Hendrick can't be thrilled that tactical information he shares with SHR will likely find its way to RCR come 2014. He's spent good money to make his teams NASCAR's elite. Now any of that information shared over the next few weeks could potentially get outside the family. And as RCR is a Chevrolet team they will be best able to take whatever Dillon learns and implement it right away.
But at the end of the day, Tony Stewart is a racer and it's likely that his primary concern right now is with winning races. Since he can't win them himself, he's looking to put someone in the car who has the potential to do so. With Brian Vickers coming off the market, there really wasn't anyone else out there with the same combination of talent and win-now mentality. It doesn't hurt that Dillon already has a relationship with sponsor Bass Pro Shops. Tony's absence from the car couldn't have pleased them so bringing a driver aboard they're already partnered with helps repair that relationship.
Austin Dillon is already a championship driver. After this season, he could potentially be a multi-time champion. With no points on the line he'll have very little to lose and everything to gain as he prepares for a run at the Sprint Cup title in 2014. While jumping in Tony Stewart's ride will be added pressure, someone willing to drive the #3 at RCR needs to be ready to handle the brightest lights. It might be a few months sooner than anticipated but Austin Dillon's time has come.