By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
*Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Season for 24 drivers. We will release one driver preview per day over a 24-day stretch.
Years in Cup: 3
Career Wins: 0
Biggest Accomplishment: 2013 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion
In 2016, Austin Dillon emerged as a driver to watch as a possible championship contender going forward. Driving for his grandfather’s much-maligned race team — Richard Childress Racing — things looked to finally go in the right direction last season.
Dillon racked up four top-five finishes (double his career tally heading into ’16) and 13 top-10 finishes (he had nine combined in his first two full-time seasons in Cup) en route to his first-career Chase berth. Once he made the Chase, many expected Dillon to be the first driver eliminated from Chase contention, but the young North Carolina native showed moxie in the Dover elimination race weekend.
After starting from the rear of the field after a crash in practice, Dillon got up on the wheel and reeled in an eighth place finish. In doing so he advanced to the Chase Round of 12. After climbing from his car, Dillon was as emotional as he was ecstatic.
“First of all I am going to say that I give all the glory to God. We have been working hard as a team and I have been working hard as a driver to make myself better. This series is very tough and I think the biggest thing was not giving up,” said Dillon. “We could have given up in that second practice yesterday when it was raining and drizzling. I got frustrated and just tried to calm myself and believe in what we were doing as a team. Man, we got it done.”
The elevated performance definitely can be chalked up partially to Dillon’s maturation behind the wheel, but what has seemingly been the real difference for Dillon, was a mid-season pairing with veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe in 2015.
In the 51 races before Labbe was paired with Dillon, the driver had an average finish of 19.2. In the 57 races since the two were joined, Dillon has an average finish of 17.2.
In 2017, Labbe and Dillon will look to continue to find greener pastures together, and the duo could very well win a race — if not more.
A look at the tracks at which Dillon scored top-fives last season — Las Vegas, Martinsville, Talladega and Bristol — shows his well-rounded talents as a driver. Restrictor plate superspeedway, intermediate 1.5-mile oval and short tracks were all represented. Expect Dillon to be a threat to win at just about every type of track, except road courses.
If Dillon can get the job done and win a race this season, it would mean more than just a first-career win for him, it would mean that his family’s race team would be back to being a fixture in victory lane. RCR has a total of 105 victories, but the organization hasn’t scored a single win since Kevin Harvick left the team at the conclusion of the 2013 season.