Circling the track in the car made famous by his grandfather and NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, pressure has been on the shoulders of one young man for several years. Since the return of the No. 3 Chevrolet hit the high banks of Daytona International Speedway in 2014, Austin Dillon has emerged as a driver that has experienced the ups and downs of Sprint Cup Series racing.
Dillon, 25, has achieved a careers worth of knowledge in his eight years in the NASCAR industry. He’s been on a roller coaster journey, from seeing the ultimate high’s of winning two championships, to the lows of struggling in the Sprint Cup Series.
But again, he’s only 25.
Heading into 2016, Dillon has competed in two full-time seasons at the helm of the No. 3 car. Being the wheelman of the historic number provides pressure within itself, he puts all of the pressure on his back.
Driving for his grandfather, Richard Childress it could raise the question on whether or not he is qualified for an elite ride, or if it was it a given that he would one day drive for “pop-pop.”
Though he has only recorded nine top-10 finishes in his first two seasons, there is reason for optimism within the camp heading into Daytona.
“You never know, Daytona could be our day,” Dillon told Speedway Digest. “The effort is there. Now it’s putting it all together to consistently run up front. The first win comes from running up front and proving that you can lead laps.”
Leading laps is one thing that Dillon has struggled to do in his first two seasons in the Cup Series. The No. 3 team has been out front for just 49 laps in the 72 races that it has been back on track, 19 of which came at Michigan last summer when he finished a career-high fourth. That was just his second top-five finish of his stint in the Cup Series.
“Michigan was a huge boost,” Dillon said. “It proves that I can lead laps and race with the best of the best. I knew I was doing it on Saturday so why couldn’t it come true on Sunday. That’s a fun part of my job is to put that effort in and when it comes out and you race up there.”
As the 2016 season approaches, Dillon’s confidence level continues to increase. Some of that comes with running in the XFINITY Series on a regular basis, getting more track time for the advanced series on Sunday. The 2013 XFINITY Series champion believes that repetition on a racetrack can help at certain citcuts, especially at ones that he struggles on such as Richmond and Dover.
Last season alone Dillon posted four victories in the XFINITY Series while leading over 500 laps in his 20 starts for RCR.
Midway through last season, Dillon teamed up with Richard “Slugger” Labbe and it elevated the performance on the Cup side. From Sonoma on, the No. 3 car had four top 10s, including his scary crash at Daytona when he flipped into the catch fence where his car came to a halting stop.
Though the end results weren’t exactly what the organization was looking for, it is something to build on for the new year. The speed was there to be competitive and compete with the Chase drivers.
Dillon’s two teammates, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard were more consistent than he was in the two previous seasons, but neither of them have won recently, either.
RCR is currently in its longest winless drought as an organization at 73 races, with the last win coming at Phoenix in the fall of 2013 when Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag.
“I think that leading laps is even more than just finishing in the top 10,” Dillon said. “When you run in the top five that is when I do believe the wins will come. So if you start seeing our top-five finishes go up, that means a win is right around the corner.”
As he gains more experience in the big leagues, Dillon has been able to settle in as a person. He has been able to translate his personal life onto the racetrack and perform at a better pace because of it.
“I’m at the point where I’m happy with me as a person,” he said. “I’m comfortable in my own skin. Now, I just want to go perform and win more, win championships and compete and make that name even more than what it is now.”
As Dillon enters his third season in the Cup Series, he is in the best position to make his first career Chase for the Sprint Cup. RCR as a company is communicating better than it has in the previous two seasons as the chemistry has begun to grow within the three teams.
One thing that might slow down Dillon and RCR in general is the loss of Furniture Row Racing as an affiliate. Martin Truex, Jr. is coming off his strongest season, which featured the No. 78 team making it to the championship four, then jumping to Toyota, aligning itself with Joe Gibbs Racing.
However, RCR still works closely with Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing. Newcomers, Circle Sport-Levine Family Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, have been added to the plethora of organizations that are under the RCR wing with technical support.
Dillon has a long NASCAR career ahead of him, but the No. 3 team needs to be better than average. As long as he somewhat performs throughout his career it seems almost guaranteed that he will have a ride with his grandfathers team. In the two seasons that he has competed in he has finishes of 20th and 21st in the points standings. But last year his average finish decreased by over three positions to that of 2014.
Like all teams, Dillon would love to have it no other way that start off the 2016 season with a bang and end up in Victory Lane following 500 miles in Daytona. If a track were to owe a driver anything, it seems like Daytona owes Dillon for the nasty crash that happened last July.
What a storyline that would be, plus the No. 3 car would be back in Victory Lane for the first time just days after the 15-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s tragic crash.
Richard Childress Racing is currently in its longest winless streak in team history. The current drought sits at 73 races, going back to when Kevin Harvick was victorious at Phoenix in Nov. 2013.
There is optimism within the camp heading into the new season.
Ryan Newman and Paul Menard both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, but had early exits within the first two rounds. It was the Menard’s first time competing for a championship after joining RCR in 2011.
In 2014, Newman made it to the championship race at Homestead, still having a legitimate shot at the championship. Unfortunately for the No. 31 crew they came up one-point short of beating Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team for the championship. The Indiana native set his personal best finish of second in the championship standings in his first year with RCR.
Last season, Newman began the season with a lot of raw speed. In the first five races, he posted four top-10 finishes, including three top-fives, with a best finish of third at Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Following the ninth race of the season, momentum began to swing in the wrong direction. Crew chief Luke Lambert was suspended following the race at Auto Club Speedway, but appealed. The final decision didn’t come until after Richmond, in which he was suspended for six races, moving veteran crew chief Todd Parrott atop the pit box after he was named the XFINITY Series Competition Director at RCR during the 2014 off-season.
In the first three races, the duo clicked off three-consecutive top-10 finishes, but then fell off the map with finishes of 18th, 39th and 18th respectively. Lambert came back at Daytona in which the team recorded an eighth-place finish.
It was a tale of two halves of the season for the No. 31 car.
In the first 18 races, the team posted 10 of its 15 top-10 finishes. In the second half of the season, the team fell off the map, but made it to the second round of the Chase when Newman was eliminated after Talladega in a controversial finish.
“We’ve got to win,” Newman told Speedway Digest. “That’s the biggest thing. You’ve got to win for the Chase, but you’ve got to win for momentum on your team, your organization, everybody involved. We saw last year because of our alliance with the No. 78 car how big that momentum really is when you do get that victory.”
In order to win a race, Newman will need to spend more time at the front of the field. He is coming off a season in which he led just 20 laps, and in two seasons with RCR, he had led a mire 61 laps. He has been consistent, but in order to put the Caterpillar Chevrolet in Victory Lane, the team needs to lead more laps and contend for top-five finishes on a regular basis.
“After finishing second two years ago, we really expected it (win) to happen last year and it didn’t,” Newman said. “We were close several times, but we didn’t lead enough laps to put our self in position to do that. That’s really what we need to work on is just putting our self in a better position to win and that’s leading laps and the guys in the pits did a good job of stepping up.”
Newman hasn’t won a race since he won the Brickyard 400 in 2013 when he beat Jimmie Johnson. That was when he was with Stewart-Haas Racing, but the move to RCR has had its positives and negatives.
“Everybody on the team has to do a perfect job and then you might still get beat by ability by some other team,” Newman said. “There are so many variables in our sport that you have to have everything right on a given day to put yourself in contention and you still might get beat.”
Menard, on the other hand, is coming off what would seem to be a career year. That is not the case.
The No. 27 car finished inside of the top 10 just five times in 2015, down from a career-high 13 in 2014. Two of those top-10 finishes were top fives, but he led just 10 laps on the season, the lowest amount he’s led in a single season since 2009, when he was a part of Yates Racing.
His best finish of 2015 in May at Talladega, where he finished third and had a shot at the victory until the tri-oval, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was victorious blocking from the bottom of the track all the way to the top.
One positive for the organization was that Menard completed 98.7 percent of the laps on the season, with an average finish of 17.1. Though he didn’t record the top 10s necessary to be competitive in the Chase, he is coming off his highest finish in the championship standings of 14th, beating Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth in the 10-race battle.
Menard’s goals are set for this season. He wants to be better than last season, but also make the Chase for the second-consecutive year.
“Our plan is to be in the Chase again and advance further,” Menard said. “When the Chase started last year we were not at our best, we were probably at our worst all year. We got eliminated in the first round.
“Justin is in his second year as being crew chief. He’s got more experience under his belt. We basically have the same team together as last year.”
The team is nearly the same except for an engineer change during the off-season. The same pit crew that pitted Menard’s car in the Chase will be back on the team after shuffling over to his car midseason.
One thing that has eluded Menard from his Cup career is a victory outside of the 2011 Brickyard 400.
It is strange that as to why Menard made the Chase last season, as it could be argued that it was his worst seasons in his tenure at RCR. There is reason to optimism for the team as he seems to always get off to hot starts then collapses in the summer. He doesn’t think that will happen in 2016.
“I feel like it can be any given week,” Menard said. “Especially toward the end of last year we hit on some things that I felt really good about. I feel like we can roll into Daytona with as good of a shot as anybody. When we get to Atlanta which is the low-downforce and the first true test of the season everybody has a clean slate.”
The other driver that yet been mentioned is Austin Dillon. Though he was the lone RCR driver to not make the Chase last season, he led the most laps out of all three teams and seemed to have the most speed throughout the second half of the season.
RCR will look to come out guns blazing in 2016 starting at the Daytona 500. Newman is a former Daytona 500 winner, while Menard and Dillon typically run well on restrictor plate tracks. It would make the season a lot easier for the organization if one of the three drivers wins the Great American Race.
The performance of Germain Racing has increased over the past two seasons by having an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. The alliance has allowed the small organization to up its game, and go from essentially a start-and-park team to a team that each week is battling for top-20 finishes.
Casey Mears is entering his seventh season with Germain Racing, five in which have been full-time. In 2010, the team qualified for just 30 races, 12 of them slotted the California native behind the wheel.
Back when Germain Racing decided to Sprint Cup Series racing, it picked Max Papis to be the full-time driver with sponsorship from GEICO. Six years later, GEICO is still around and supporting the team in every race, for a club that runs outside of the top 10.
It isn’t for a lack of trying. Aligning themselves with RCR has brought the spirit within the team to new heights. In 2015, Mears experienced his best season with the current team.
His top 10 total went down from three to one in 2015 compared to 2014, but the consistency was there more this season than in previous seasons. With an average finish of 23.1, slightly up from 2014, his team has brought optimism into the new season.
He finished 23rd in the championship standings, but hovered around the 20th position all season long. His lone top 10 came in the Daytona 500 where the No. 13 car crossed the checkered flag in the sixth position, giving them a heads up on larger teams that finished poorly in the 500, such as Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski, all whom finished 35th or worse.
In the first month and a half of the season, Mears finished in the top 20 all but two times, giving him the best start with Germain Racing in his tenure. Following Martinsville, he had four straight finished of 25th or worse, costing him valuable points.
One thing that the team improved was qualifying. For the season, the No. 13 had an average starting position of 23.9, including an eighth-place effort at Sonoma, a place that Mears typically runs well at. The speed was there to be competitive, and he looks forward to even better results in 2016.
“Our morale is really high right now,” Mears told Speedway Digest. “It’s been a long time coming for our program. The last five years now it’s been a huge growth from being essentially a start-and-park program, to running half of the races, to now I think this is our third full season. Now being with RCR again for another year, I feel like we are really starting to understand a lot of the details that we need to know and understand to really go out and compete.”
RCR hasn’t won a race since the fall of 2013 when Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix. However, it did produce one of the championship four contenders in 2014 with the No. 31 team and Newman. Over the course of last season RCR continued to grow faster, especially with Austin Dillon.
The No. 3 team may not have got the results that they were looking for, but Dillon became a top-10 to top-15 regular, including a career best of fourth at Michigan in August. Paul Menard made the Chase for the first time, and an alliance with Furniture Row Racing propelled Martin Truex, Jr. to the championship race in Homestead.
Speed wise, RCR is giving high quality equipment to its competition. Being that 2016 will be the third year working with Germain Racing, it is assumed that the No. 13 car will be the best it has been to date.
“A huge goal for us is to break the top 20 in points,” Mears said. “I honestly feel like last year, every single year there’s a handful of races that you can always look back on and go ‘man if we would have just done this’ or something would happen, but in reality we actually had several things happen to us last year that just don’t typically happen.”
Crew chief Bootie Barker and he have worked together for the better part of the past five and a half years. Barker is one of the most respected crew chiefs that sits atop the pit box on a weekly basis. The chemistry has evolved into a close friendship off the racetrack and has proven to work on the track.
This isn’t quite a make or break season for Mears as he is signed with Germain Racing through the 2018 season. But the pressure to perform is always on a race team and for him personally he wants to win, but more importantly have a shot at the championship, something that’s never happened in his career.
In his 13-year career, Mears has had some bright moments that stick out including winning the pole for the Brickyard 400 in 2004. He’s raced for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Red Bull Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Keyed-Up Motorsports and now Germain Racing, but has just one fuel mileage win to show for it in the 2007 Coca-Cola 600.
In recent memory Mears hasn’t had the ability to run toward the front, but heading into 2016, his career might be the most stable that it has ever been.
“I feel like, even last year, if we can just put a solid season together and not had issues we could have probably finished 18th in points,” he said. “I see us if we get everything out that we have and make the right decisions we’re knocking on the door of possibly being in the Chase.”
Making the Chase would be a huge step in the right direction for the small race team that employs less than 40 people. Unloading off of the hauler with something to work with will allow for a better opportunity for Mears and Barker. They can focus on what they have and improve the setup instead of struggling to find the right balance all weekend long.
Paul Menard is back in victory lane for the first time since he won the Brickyard 400 in 2011. However, this win is in NASCAR’s second-tier division, the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Menard has won his second career Nationwide Series event in 183 starts as he came out victorious at the Michigan International Speedway on Saturday afternoon for the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 200. With five laps to go, Joey Logano had to pit after leading 43 laps during the race. Logano’s right rear tire gave out as he had a 1.3 second gap over Menard, handing over the No. 33 team their first victory of the year.
“This is a brand new car. It’s good to be back in victory lane. This feels really good,” Menard said. “I was trying to run him down and we were going to catch him a little bit, but we weren’t going to pass him.”
The Wisconsin native lone Nationwide Series win prior to Saturday’s event came in 2006 at Milwaukee while he was driving for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. In eight prior Nationwide Series starts at Michigan, Menard earned seven top-10s, and nearly went to victory lane in 2012 after leading 37 laps. The victory also marks the first win for Richard Childress Racing in any of the top-three NASCAR divisions since Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix towards the conclusion of the 2013 season.
Sam Hornish Jr., who was racing the No. 20 car for the first time this season, gave Menard a run for his money, but came up less than a half of a second short for the win. Hornish spun out of the second lap after getting loose in Turn 2 – forcing him to race his way from outside of the top-30 to the front of the field. He has finished no worse than fifth in his three Nationwide Series starts this season.
On Lap 79, Dylan Kwasniewski got loose while trying to get around Trevor Bayne for the 11th position. Kwasniewski slid right into Bayne’s No. 6 Ford, sending both cars hard into the outside wall in Turn 2.
"I have to start driving smarter. This is all my fault," Kwasniewski said on the wreck.
Elliott Sadler was running in the second position with 25 laps to go when there was a piece of debris on the grille of his No. 11 car. Sadler attempted to get the debris off his car by letting Earnhardt Jr. go by him, but he was unable to do so – forcing him to pit.
Regan Smith continues to hold the drivers points lead as he is 14 markers ahead of Sadler. Chase Elliott, who finished sixth, is six points behind Sadler in the third position. Elliott was battling Kyle Larson for the lead for the majority of the race, but the two opted to stay out during a caution flag while the majority of the lead lap cars pitted. Then, a caution came out several laps later, forcing them to take four tires while their competitors took either two tires or fuel-only. Larson ended up finishing eighth after leading a race-high 46 laps.
Here are some notables from the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 200 at Michigan:
-Ryan Reed recorded the second best finish of his career and the best result of his season as he finished 11th in the No. 16 Ford.
-Ty Dillon led nine laps early in the race, but ended up finishing ninth as he is 35 points behind Smith in the standings.
-Ross Chastain recorded his best career Nationwide Series finish in his second start as he finished in the 12th position for Hattori Racing Enterprises.
-Landon Cassill raced his way to his seventh top-15 of the season for JD Motorsports as he finished 14th.
-There were six different leaders for a total of 14 lead changes.