Nascar

Austin Dillon hopes to fuel Richard Childress Racing surge with return to Daytona victory lane

DAYTONA BEACH — Austin Dillon has enjoyed remarkable success at Daytona International Speedway since becoming a fulltime NASCAR Cup Series driver in 2014.

After a 13-year absence from racing, Dillon brought back the No. 3 competition number made famous by Dale Earnhardt.

When Earnhardt died on the last lap of 2001 Daytona 500, Richard Childress Racing removed the number from competition out of respect for the seven-time NASCAR champion.

Dillon, a grandson of Childress, raced the No. 3 throughout his career and when it was time to move to the Cup Series level, brought the number back into competition.

Dillon immediately wowed race fans when he captured the Daytona 500 pole as a rookie in 2014. Four years later and 20 years after Earnhardt’s only 500 win, Dillon nabbed the biggest stock-car race on Earth.

Now after an offseason of change, which includes a new teammate, Dillon returns looking for that second Daytona 500 win.

He got off to good start by finishing second to Erik Jones in last Sunday’s Busch Clash. Dillon was only one of six drivers still on the track by the time the checkered flag was displayed.

Austin Dillon (3) finished second in Sunday's Busch Clash at Daytona. (Photo: John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports)

“We had a (race) strategy, but the strategy didn’t really work out for us,” Dillon said after the fact. “The caution came out, which was nice because we got to race.

“Once we got to race, it was a wreck-fest. I made some really good moves in missing wrecks. That was probably the proudest I am, of that.”

And now it is on to Thursday’s qualifying races and Sunday’s Daytona 500, where he can lean on two-time defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick for an assist.

“He’s an exciting driver,” Dillon said before the Clash. “He knows how to push the limits of his car. We have an excitement going into the season.”

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Childress thinks Reddick is the missing link to a team that’s been lagging behind in performance. Reddick is thrilled about his opportunity.

“We are all excited about this season,” Reddick said. “Chevrolet is excited about it. I don’t feel like I’m alone on this deal.

“The hope is that me and Austin go out this year and one of us run well on one weekend or another and help pick each other up and motivate each other to the next level.”

Dillon said RCR worked extremely hard during the offseason to prepare for Daytona and beyond. All of Dillon’s focus right now is on the 200-lap run over Daytona’s 2.5-mile tri-oval.

Team owner Richard Childress hugs his grandson Austin Dillon after winning the 2018 Daytona 500. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)

“The Daytona 500, so much pressure is put on that race,” he said. “But it’s fun. I really enjoy it and love the atmosphere.”

RCR has always put an emphasis on Daytona and that knowledge carries over to the races at Talladega Superspeedway. For instance, Earnhardt won 10 consecutive Daytona qualifying races and is the all-time Cup Series wins (10) leader at Talladega.

Childress has won the Daytona 500 with Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick and Dillon.

Dillon can point to last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 for encouragement. He led 46 laps before getting swept out of the race on Lap 118.

“We were really strong, probably one of the best speedway cars I’ve ever had,” he said. “We led a lot of laps, we were leading until a big crash and the rain hit.

“It’s a place where we find ourselves to the front and we obviously have a history here. It’s a good feeling coming to Daytona.”

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