The cowboy hat and the famous No. 3 on the track speaks for itself. Richard Childress’s grandson Austin Dillon has been racing since he was a child, and has flourished into a NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. Driving for Richard Childress Racing, Dillon took over the car number that hadn’t been used since Dale Earnhardt‘s death in Feb. 2001.
Pressure has been immense for Dillon, who has earned five top 10s in his first 63 Sprint Cup Series starts. He was edged out by Kyle Larson for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors last year, and sits 23rd in the championship standings after the 14th event of the year. Dillon spoke with Frontstretch about his expectations moving forward, racing in the Xfinity Series this year, what he needs to improve on, changes NASCAR should make and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch: What has been the biggest difference between your rookie year and your sophomore year in Cup?
Austin Dillon: I think the finishes. We haven’t had the finishes that we wanted, but we have run pretty solid, similar to last year and some places better. We have not been able to have the finishes that we want. We had one really good finish at Bristol, and we ran up front and had a shot to win. We are getting more consistent. Last year, we were more consistent toward the top 15 and getting the finishes that we wanted.
Wolkin: You’ve only had one top five in your Cup career thus far. Last year at this time, you were sitting 15th in points, but this year you are 24th. What is missing on your team compared to last year?
Dillon: If you look at the laps leading up to the finishes, that is the last 20-30 laps, we have blown three motors and that is some of our points. We didn’t blow a motor last year. We blew a tire at Atlanta, and we’ve just had some really bad finishes from things that are out of our hands. Our bad finishes last year were 22nd, 23rd and 24th versus this year where it’s 39th, 41st, 31st from mistakes we have made.
Wolkin: You are running the majority of the Xfinity Series season as well. How important is it for you to get that added seat time?
Dillon: It has been great. We have been pretty dominant over there. Hopefully, we can continue that over there. The confidence has been really high from that team, and it is bleeding over here. We have gotten some good qualifying efforts the past couple of weeks and have run more solid than we have been.
— Austin Dillon (@austindillon3) May 23, 2015
Wolkin: What is the biggest difference between the two divisions?
Dillon: I think the competition level is always going to be higher in the Cup Series. I think that is the bigger part. Then, there are the differences in the cars. There is a big difference in the aero balance.
Wolkin: What do you feel you need to improve on to become a championship caliber driver in Cup?
Dillon: I think more aggressiveness at the end of these races will help me. We need to be more confident in late-race restarts. We need to put ourselves in a better position to win some races.
Wolkin: What is the biggest lesson that you have learned in your time with the No. 3 team?
Dillon: Never give up. We’ve fought really hard over the past couple of years. We might not have had the fastest car, but we have been able to get some solid finishes.
Wolkin: With this Chase format, what do you feel like you need to do to make the Chase?
Dillon: Win I think is the biggest part. You have to have a win, and hopefully we can do that before too long. We have 13 races to do that, so we just put ourselves in as many positions as we can to win and take more chances.
Wolkin: What tracks do you feel you have a chance to win at compared to others?
Dillon: This weekend at Pocono is a really good track for us. Last year, we qualified 11th in both races and ran solid. We just didn’t end like we wanted it to. Michigan is another one, and we have some good ones coming up.
Wolkin: With [crew chief] Gil Martin’s experience, how has he been able to help you grow as a driver?
Dillon: He makes me work really hard. You have to stay on top of the game, trying to figure out the best ways to help my team.
Wolkin: This year’s rules package has been questioned plenty over the past few weeks. What would you like to see changed?
Dillon: I think the ride height rule would be cool – changing it to the Xfinity Series rule. I think the cars are too sealed off, personally. I would like to see that changed back to the old way. I’d like to see a choice of two tires. That would be cool.
Wolkin: Do you mean two different brands or two types of the same brand?
Dillon: Not two brands, just two different compounds. A softer compound and a harder compound would be nice.
Wolkin: Driving the No. 3 car, what do you want your legacy to be as your career progresses?
Dillon: Someone that is a hard-nosed racer that enjoys racing anything at any time.
Wolkin: Is there less pressure on you this year since there isn’t as much talk about the No. 3 being run like there was last year?
Dillon: I think there is pressure no matter what you are in. You have a lot of guys that are behind you with the team, especially with all of RCR, the sponsors and you just have to take it and go with it.
Wolkin: Outside of racing, what is your life like?
Dillon: It’s pretty fun. I get to enjoy what I do, but it is really busy. You are going from race-to-race, track-to-track and then also sponsor obligations in between each race and team obligations also. It is a busy life style.
Wolkin: How did the cowboy hat get started?
Dillon: I just started wearing one at Texas and just kind of took off with it.