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Will Austin Dillon be NASCAR’s next new Sprint Cup winner this Sunday?

March 19, 2016
Dillon mug

Austin Dillon’s second appearance in the Auto Club Speedway media center on Friday occurred once he captued pole position – Anne Proffit photo

We got to see Austin Dillon and his big, black cowboy hat twice in the media center at @ACSUpdates on Friday afternoon. He had the early, all-skate opportunity for media to ask questions (two if you’re from Germany) the first time he came to visit.

Dillon’s second Friday invitation to a media grilling arrived after earning his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole position in a three-round knockout formula for qualifying that’s customary for tracks the size of the 2-mile oval at Auto Club Speedway, where the Auto Club 400 is held this Sunday.

He was a lot happier the second time after pipping Kevin Harvick for the top spot in the latter stages of the third round, with a lap of 188.482 mph to the Californian’s 188.329. He waited until the very bitter end to go out, and that was all Dillon needed to get his quick tour of the Auto Club Speedway oval. But it wasn’t like the grandson of Richard Childress appeared out of the blue in qualifying; he was quickest in practice 1 and has three top-10 results in the first four races (he was 11th in the other contest).

Richard Childress Racing has made some changes over the past season or so, bringing Slugger Labbe in last summer as Dillon’s strategist. (One of the team’s few consistent items is its engine staff, led by Dr. Andy Randolph.) With the new, lower-downforce package that NASCAR put into place for this year, the setups are matching Austin Dillon’s aptitude as a wheelman, coming from dirt-track racing, and his ability to deal with a messy track like this one in Fontana, Calif., which is known for its dust and unique seams.

“We felt like we had to do a good job of transitioning this year,” Dillon said. “Last year we were behind earlier in the year, I think as an organization, and we’ve started playing catch-up this year. We’re closer. And now we’ve just got to keep our mindset as focused as we can and keep adding to what we have, adding to this base that we started with.”

Dillon on the high side1

Dillon’s Chevrolet SS rides the high line in qualifying for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 – Anne Proffit photo

Dillon kept that momentum going by leading the first Friday practice and then taking pole position later in the day. During the very early morning Saturday practice he was fifth in the No. 3 American Ethanol Chevy SS and placed sixth in final practice, the latter two geared toward race-day setups, while the initial session focused on time trials.

After Friday, everyone knew the bright green and black No. 3 had speed; after two added practice sessions it looks like the RCR machine also has consistency. “This is the start of what we need to be doing as a group, as a company at RCR,” the third-year, currently winless Sprint Cup driver said. While he realizes he’s one of the younger drivers on the tour and doesn’t have the on-track experience of a veteran, “I’ve won an Xfinity Series; I’ve won a Truck Series. When you get that first [win] behind you everything just starts going easier for you.”

Could this be the weekend Austin Dillon breaks through to victory on the 2-mile @ACSUpdates oval? This track has been a place that welcomes first-time winners and encourages new victors. The weather on Sunday is expected to be temperate and clear, with a high around 80 degrees, a mark that will likely be met shortly after the green flags fly near 1PM PDT. “I feel like we just got to keep doing our job and that day is going to come.” And as we know, winning changes everything.

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit

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