By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Richard Childress Racing drivers Ryan Newman and Paul Menard qualified for last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Austin Dillon didn’t make NASCAR’s playoff in his sophomore season at the sport’s highest level, but this year, he’s determined to change that scenario and put his No. 3 Chevrolet “where it deserves to be.”
Dillon’s Chevy got a jump-start after the 15th race of the 2015 season, when veteran crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe took over the pit box. Four of Dillon’s top-10 finishes last year came after Labbe’s arrival.
“I’m really excited about what we’ve built on last year,” Dillon told the NASCAR Wire Service on Thursday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, after RCR’s formal presentation on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour. “I think Slugger switching over halfway through the year gave a new life to our team.
“I’m looking back at my seasons in Truck and XFINITY and what I’ve been able to accomplish in the XFINITY races I ran last year (four victories and 16 top 10s in 20 starts). I’m beating guys that run well in the Cup series on Saturday and I want that same result on Sunday.”
The difference was a pickup in speed. In the second half of the season, Dillon started running at or near the front of the Sprint Cup field.
“I think last year, leading laps at Michigan and running up front in a lot of races toward the end of the year was big,” he said. “I think it was just a good change of momentum. Working with Slugger—he has the same mentality that I have toward sports in general and that’s to eliminate mistakes, talk about ‘em and trying to be the best we can be at every aspect of racing.”
Though both Newman and Menard made the Chase in 2015, no Cup driver at RCR won a race. That’s something else Dillon plans to change.
“Getting to Victory Lane is by far our main goal,” he said. “Then, when you get to the Chase, I think the aspect changes again to the championship. Our first goal is to win at least one of the first (26) races to get in the Chase, and then to win again to move on to the next round.
“I truthfully think we made some headway last year on our speed at RCR. When you can go out and lead laps and run up front, eventually that win is coming. You have to be able to lead laps and run up front to accomplish things. Before halfway through the season, I don’t think we had the speed to do that.
“That’s hard on your confidence. It’s hard to get up for every race and to be confident with what you’ve got. We’ve put a lot of effort into it. I think the equipment’s there at RCR and now it’s a matter of putting it all together.”
If Dillon is determined to win a race this year, team owner Richard Childress, Dillon’s grandfather, all but guaranteed that would happen.
“We’ve got to win this year in Cup,” Childress said. “We’ve been consistent, and that’s what it takes, but we want to win in the Cup series–and we will this year.”
Image: Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images