By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The NASCAR Cup Series’ most anticipated race in quite some time is this Sunday. Folks have their obvious picks as to who’ll win the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. No question the large consensus will pick Kyle Larson due to his dirt racing dominance.
However, a couple competitors could steal Larson’s thunder. The man himself said Austin Dillon could be the one leaving “Thunder Valley” with the win, outside of him of course.
Dillon is no slouch in dirt racing. In fact, he and Larson put on an absolute show in the inaugural Truck Series race at Eldora in 2013. On a historic weeknight in July, Dillon was the man who dethroned the dirt ace.
It turned out to be Dillon’s only national touring victory despite winning the Xfinity Series championship months later. That’s besides the point because Dillon showcased an underrated driving ability. It would take Larson three more years to get his Eldora triumph.
“I think just dirt racing, in general, I’ve got a little bit of a background in it. From Eldora, winning the first Truck race there, I’d say that’s what he’s talking about,” Dillon during Tuesday’s teleconference.
“Kyle’s good at anything he gets in and I’m just glad that he mentioned me; that’s pretty awesome, really. It makes my day, so now I have to step-up and perform.”
That in mind, Dillon may be viewed as a dark horse to beat the likes of Larson, Chase Briscoe, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Chris Windom and Stewart Friesen.
Nothing new for Dillon when it comes being claimed as a dark horse, saying Larson’s comments has tremendous value.
“I feel like I’m playing that role a lot. It’s a good role to be in; like the spoiler side of it. But it does mean a lot to me that Kyle said that,” said Dillon. “I really respect his opinion on a lot of things and his talent level, everybody talks about it in the media center.
“He’s a very talented driver, so for him to throw me in there means a lot and drives me to want to get after it even more this weekend than I already do.”
Fast forward to last Saturday, Dillon’s experience on dirt was more apparent. He won the 604 Late Model feature, leading wire-to-wire in a Cory Hedgecock prepared machine.
With momentum on his side, Dillon must be considered a favorite for Sunday’s 250-lap event. Winning the FASTRAK Racing Series event certainly boasted his confidence.
“I was able to win that crate race there in a late model and I think that was good experience, just to see the track. We were pretty dominate in all three of the races that we were in,” said Dillon. “I think from the knowledge side of things, I can probably do a pretty good job of getting what we need, when it comes to down to race time.
“250-laps around a dirt track, you don’t really get that many laps on a track in a race on dirt. So, it’ll be a learning curve and I think we’ll be as prepared as anyone for it; that’s the one advantage, I think.”
“It’s one thing to run a dirt late model, but running a stock car on dirt has its challenges. In his time in the Dirt Nationals, he feels confident the Cup cars can adapt well based on the stock car feature he witnessed.
“I felt like the stock car race was probably one of the best races this past week when I was there and that’s what I’m hoping you guys get to see from the Cup level,” Dillon admitted to the press.
“All the guys that are preparing the track – I’ve been in touch with some of those people, trying to just give feedback to give it the best show we can put on for all the fans out there. I think they’re prepared; I think the knowledge they gained form the Dirt Car Nationals last week will really go a long way when it comes down to it of what you see this coming week.”
Dillon hopes to have a strong 15-lap heat race Saturday (coverage starts at 6:00 p.m. ET on FS1), citing starting position will be key.
“They’ll be challenging. It’s a short amount of time and you’ll want to get as many passing points as you can. Your starting position matters at any type of racing level,” Dillon on heat racing.
The heat race lineups will be determined via drawing and while that’ll be fun, he had one lingering thought. If it was based on NASCAR’s current qualifying procedure, Dillon would’ve had a strong starting position after finishing sixth at Atlanta last Sunday.
“I was hoping we would go off of a regular race weekend and go off of the past race, because we would have a pretty good starting position after our run at Atlanta this past weekend, and I think starting up front would be really good for us,” Dillon on the qualifying format.
Despite not having the guaranteed position of starting closer towards the front, he isn’t too worried.
“I feel like if you do your job and practice that you should be able to move forward through the race,” Dillon concluded.
Live race coverage of the Cup Series first dirt race since 1970 begins Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.