With their back against the wall, 2016 has been the resurgence of Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing.
Heading into Pocono, the 14th race of the season, Dillon sits 10th in standings and has a career-high six top-10 finishes. After the 500-lap event at Martinsville, the No. 3 car sat as high as seventh in the standings.
This is Dillon’s first full season working with veteran crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe. In the second race that the duo paired up, they had a seventh-place finish at Daytona, while flying into the catch fence.
In the 34 races that they’ve been a duo, the No. 3 team has 10 top-10 finishes and starts, with a pole at Fontana in March.
“He’s been very influential,” Dillon told Speedway Digest of Labbe. “His passion for running fast and being competitive is the best part. He’s got a lot of fire in him and that’s what you want to have a guy that wants to run well. He gets all he can out of those racecars and that’s what you want with a guy that is leading your team.”
Labbe is a five-time winner at the Sprint Cup level, including two Daytona 500 wins with Michael Waltrip and a Brickyard 400 triumph with Paul Menard.
Dillon, 26, is continuing to adapt into his role with the team, which is owned by his grandfather Richard Childress.
The No. 3 team works with a pair of teammates in Menard and veteran Ryan Newman, looking at each other’s setups and learning information from them, when in the past it was vice-versa.
Dillon believes that he is establishing himself on and off the racetrack to be a guy to contend with going forward.
“I think everybody uses everybody to their advantage as much as they can because you can’t go through these days trying to fight these other guys without each other,” Dillon said. “I think we all use each other well.”
The teams are said to have an open notebook, allowing one another to compare notes. With all the cooperation at the track and at the race shop, the No. 3 car is still struggling to lead laps.
Dillon has led three laps this season. Additionally, all of RCR has led just 21 laps this season.
“We need to find that raw speed to get us to that point of leading laps is very important to us,” Dillon stated.
Following Pocono, the Cup Series takes to Michigan, where Dillon was out front for 19 circuits last August. That race was the most laps he has ever led in a single race during his career at the top level of NASCAR.
During the event, NASCAR tested out a new high drag aerodynamic package, searching for the 2016 rules package. It made for less passing and once a team was out front it was hard to pass, especially at Michigan when the straightaway speeds exceed 210 mph.
Michigan is said to be one of Dillon’s favorite racetracks. In 2015, his lone top-five finish came at the 2.0-mile oval. In seven starts at the venue, he has led multiple laps in two of those events. In three XFINITY Series starts, he has started from the pole twice en route to leading 72 laps and a best finish of fifth in 2012.
“Michigan is one of my favorite racetracks and just hoping we find a little bit of speed before we get there,” Dillon said with a smile. “I think that race could get us to the point where we can lead more laps.
Throughout his NASCAR career, consistency continues to be the key for Dillon. He has 14 career wins in NASCAR’s lower two national touring series, including championships in both the Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series.
But now, he is starting to see that consistency blend up to the Cup Series level.
“Consistency is something that I have been decent at throughout my career,” Dillon said. “The team has been given me a strong car each and every week. I think that’s what comes with it, having something you can race and have speed.”
Another part to the turnaround for Dillon has been girlfriend Whitney Ward. Since going public midway through last year, the No. 3 team has elevated their performance, in particular Dillon himself.
Ward has stabilized Dillon in a way that he wasn’t before. A bad day at the racetrack is still a good day in life for him because he has someone to share his success and failures with.
“She’s settled me down and made it fun at the racetracks to be with her and share all of the cool things that we get to do and see how special it is,” Dillon said. “She’s very positive. That’s what you want is somebody who is positive in your life and someone who is for you, and she’s definitely for me and that means a lot to me.”
Throughout the many crew changes that have happened in the past season for the No. 3 team. This season alone, they have changed rear tire carriers and have switched positions on the pit crew.
Dillon believes that Ward has been a big part of building the team chemistry due to the positivity that the two share.
It’s a bond that is hard to be broken.
“At the beginning of this year she has done some things that have showed everybody that she is all in for this team,” he said. “The guys really enjoy that. I think that she keeps showing everybody her passion. She shows me every week. When I get in the car, afterwards she wants to talk about it and understand it better and better. She really loves it.”
The Dillon brothers have been criticized in the past for being Childress’ grandsons. But in 2016, the on-track performance is starting to match the expectations for both drivers, with Ty Dillon expected to make the jump to the Sprint Cup level full-time next year.
Solidly in the Chase halfway through the regular season, Dillon hopes 2016 will be his breakout season, giving him a spot in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.