The cowboy-hat-and-sunglasses look is one that is natural for Austin Dillon. The North Carolina native walked around the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage on Friday morning as smooth as silk, casually signing autographs and pausing momentarily to take pictures with fans.
But the former Camping World Truck and XFINITY series champion is much more relaxed than he was when he entered NASCAR’s premier division in 2014, competing for his grandfather’s team, Richard Childress Racing. With the relaxed mentality, Dillon is embarking on his most successful season with RCR in the famed No. 3 car.
Sitting 12th in the championship standings entering Pocono Raceway, Dillon is in position to qualify for the Chase for the first time in his career. We spoke with Dillon on Friday morning, discussing the team’s success in 2016, working with his brother, Ty Dillon, Brandon Jones, what the team needs to improve on and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch.com: You’ve been running stronger this year. What’s the biggest difference between last year and now?
Austin Dillon: We just changed a lot up within our team. We’re just focused on trying to get more speed in our racecars. I think we’re able to do it.
Wolkin: How different has the environment at RCR been this year?
Dillon: I think it’s a culture change and it’s hard to change a culture. I think we’re doing a good job of heading in that direction. It’s really about people. We want to show everybody that we’re here for one reason, and that is to compete and run well, not just to run. We want everybody to do their job and get as much as they can out of their job.
Wolkin: With the positive results, how much more confidence do you have when you unload off the truck?
Dillon: It makes it a lot more comfortable when you get there. You know you’re going to have speed and if not, you’re going to work to get it. Communication is a big thing, and our team has been working really hard even when we don’t unload fast to work through things and get our car faster as it goes.
Wolkin: What’s been the biggest difference between the set-ups this year compared to last?
Dillon: The aero package has been big, and there have been subtle changes we make every weekend to get our cars closer. As far as major changes, there haven’t been a whole lot. It’s the same core type of stuff. We’re just trying to get our bodies better, our motors better and every little part that makes it run.
Wolkin: With the new aero package this year, how much more control do you have over your results?
Dillon: I think it’s allowed us to get just a little closer to cars now without getting the aero push or aero loose. I think it’s been a big change for our sport.
Wolkin: What impact has “Slugger” Labbe had on your team after joining you around halfway through last season?
Dillon: He’s done a really good job. He’s one of the main guys about that culture change. He’s a very aggressive person who wants to get all out of the racecar every weekend. That’s what we started preaching to everyone in our organization. We have to be that way. Every person has to take their job that seriously.
Wolkin: How has your relationship with him developed over the past year?
Dillon: We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ve done a good job at coming together and making ourselves better. A couple of weeks ago, we had a really good week as a group and it brought us to another level on our communication skills. We’re always developing that. It’s like a relationship. You develop your skills, try to get to know each other better, so that you can perform better.
Wolkin: You’ve been racing more frequently with Ty, dipping down to the XFINITY Series and with him running some Cup races. How has your relationship with him developed on the track?
Dillon: Ty’s a lot different than I am. The good thing is, he’s very competitive and he wants all that he can get. I think it’ll definitely help the team when he’s up in the Cup Series one day.
Wolkin: What’s different about you two?
Dillon: Just our personalities. We have a little bit of different driving styles, along with personalities. It creates a different mix.
Wolkin: How often do you guys work with each other when you’re at the track?
Dillon: We try to every weekend when we’re racing together just to get a little information out of both of us to see what our cars are doing.
Wolkin: You guys have the brotherly love for each other, but do you guys ever get into any disputes?
Dillon: Yeah, we do. We get into it every now and then. It’s just a brother thing. We’ve done a good job at getting through it.
Wolkin: The XFINITY Series team has been running well, but Joe Gibbs Racing continues to dominate the division. What are you guys missing to compete with them?
Dillon: Everything: downforce and horsepower, and just a little bit of everything that is going to put it together by the end of the year.
Wolkin: Brandon Jones has been with the team for a bit now. How much has he been leaning on you for advice?
Dillon: Well, he comes to me every now and then. I think it’s a sanity check to see where we’re at. He comes to me when he can. Brandon does a lot on his own. He’s done a good job learning and figuring out things for himself. He’s been able to do a good job this year of it.
Wolkin: Back to the Cup Series, what do you feel like your team needs to get its first win?
Dillon: Everything has to go right and we need to be able to restart well and up front. We need better track position and hold them off when it counts. Gibbs has obviously done a good job at putting speed in their racecars and speed is what leads laps.
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