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.
Kyle Larson Outlasts the Rain in Pocono
In what was supposed to be the rain free day of the weekend, rain halted the racing 53 laps into the 100 laps race and by the NASCAR rule book, once the race is passed halfway it is deemed official if weather comes. Pole-sitter Erik Jones was closing in on Larson when the rain hit the race track.
NASCAR waited an hour and 35 minutes before calling the event due to rain. Once the track was near dry it began to pour, which led the series director to call the remainder of the race.
Larson led on several different occasions for a total of 27 circuits. It marks the Chip Ganassi Racing drivers' fourth career win in 82 XFINITY Series starts, and his second career win at Pocono, winning an ARCA event two years ago.
"I'm happy with it," Larson said of the rain coming in and ending the race. "We were good, a little bit better than i thought we would be. We were more comparable to the Gibbs cars than I thought we would be based off practice and qualifying."
Jones finished second on the afternoon after starting from pole, but never leading a lap. For the majority of the 53 laps the No. 20 car was in the runner-up position, first chasing his teammate Kyle Busch then chasing Larson. He felt like this race was another race that she let slip away.
"We had by far one of the best cars in the field today, so it's unfortunate," Jones said of his second-place effort. "Our Camry was good, but just not enough time t get back to the lead and have a shot at it. It's pretty frustrating because this whole year has been a season of just missing it by that much. We missed it in a couple races by penalties and circumstances and today was another one of those days where we had another good shot at the win, but with the way it played out it just didn't work out for us."
Ty Dillon finished third, posting his fourth top-five finish of 2016.
After leading the opening 16 laps, Busch couldn't get back through traffic to take the lead back after making a pit stop under the first caution flag. Finishing fourth on the afternoon, he felt that the team was a step behind.
Joey Logano rounded out the top five after getting off-sequence with the competition.
Elliott Sadler, Paul Menard, Brandon Jones, Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman rounded out the top 10.
Brennan Poole finished 12th, ending a streak of four consecutive top 10 finishes, which is a career-high in his rookie season.
On Lap 20, Justin Allgaier made contact with the wall in the "Tunnel Turn" which resulted in a 39th-place finish. The No. 7 team dropped to seventh in the points after starting the race third in the standings.
The series is set to return to action next Saturday at Michigan, where Busch is the defending winner of the event, which was his first race back in the XFINITY Series after his leg injuries last February in Daytona. .
Joe Gibbs Racing Faster than the Field in Pocono
For the fifth time in 2016, Erik Jones will start from the pole in an XFINITY Series race. In the second round of qualifying he laid down a lap of 175.926 mph, which was much faster than the rest of the field. In the first round of qualifying the No. 20 Toyota was over a half-second faster than second-place.
Kyle Busch has been fast since the No. 18 team unloaded on Thursday. He was second overall at 175. 203 mph. His only win at Pocono in NASCAR came last summer when he won in the Camping World Truck Series.
The third Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Daniel Suarez was third quick at 174.784 mph. It his 12th top-10 start of 2016, in 12 events.
Kyle Larson was fourth at 173.568 and Joey Logano rounded out the top five at 172.781 mph.
Elliott Sadler was sixth, Paul Menard seventh, Ty Dillon eighth, Justin Allgaier ninth and Alex Bowman rounded out the top 10.
The top 12 cars in the second round of qualifying were separated by two seconds.
Notable drivers to miss the top 12 cutoff were a pair of rookies led by Brennan Poole who posted the 13th best lap, with Brandon Jones 14th, Cup Series driver Aric Almirola 16th and Brendan Gaughan 17th.
Darrell Wallace, Jr. was the second to last car to attempt a qualifying lap in the opening round. The No. 6 Ford got loose getting into the corner and went for a long spin, keeping it off the wall. In doing so, Bowman was on track for his warm up lap and had to pull his car into the pits to cool the engine down.
Bowman posted the eight fastest lap even with a hot engine, while Wallace will have to come from the rear as he never made a full lap.
The green flag is set to wave shortly after 1:00 p.m. ET.
Denny Hamlin Comes Back to Win at Charlotte
With less than 40 laps to go Hamlin had to go to the rear for an uncontrolled tire during a pit stop under caution.
It took the No. 18 car just over 30 laps to get up to third after restarting 14th.
Then a caution flew with under two laps to go and changed the entire outcome of the 300-mile race.
Hamlin's JGR teammate and pole-sitter Erik Jones brought out a caution when he cut down a right front tire, pounding the outside wall. The No. 18 team decided to come down and put four tires on their machine, while the two race leaders stayed out.
On the green-white-checkered finish, Hamlin grabbed the lead coming to the white flag where he wouldn't look back en route to JGR's seventh win of the season in the series.
"It was a second opportunity," Hamlin said of his victory. "I was hoping for that caution there and the end and we got it. We were able to get four tires and took off. It was a little closer than I thought, we were just really right in those last couple of laps."
Austin Dillon was the first off pit road taking just two tires after the final caution. He gained one position in the final two laps, finishing in the runner-up position.
After leading 58 laps and being one of two drivers to stay out under the late race caution, Joey Logano came home third. This is his second top-five finish in five races this season in the No. 22 car, which is still looking for its first victory as a team.
"We had a car that was capable of winning if circumstances were right," Logano said of his third-place effort. "I thought I was going to have a good restart next to [Kyle] and I thought if we cleared him, like we did, we would have a shot. It was just really hard to hold off those four tires."
In his second career start Cole Custer came home with a fourth-place finish. His JR Motorsports teammate, Justin Allgaier rounded out the top five.
Kyle Larson made a bold move in Turn 3 of the final lap going for the win, but came up short and hit the outside wall. It cost him dearly as he finished sixth after leading 46 laps.
Larson was the leader of the race when the final caution flag flew and the No. 42 team decided to stay out. Going into the final set of corners he had a shot at the victory, but came up short of his third career XFINITY Series triumph.
"I didn't get a great take-off and Joey [Logano] got around me and was sucking on my door," Larson said of the final restart. "Denny [Hamlin] gave me a shot and i was surprised at how much grip I had. It's pretty hard to beat four tires."
Rookie Brandon Jones finish seventh, with RCR teammate Ty Dillon eighth, Brennan Poole ninth and Brendan Gaughan rounded out the top 10.
There were eight cautions in the race for 54 laps. In the two races combined at Charlotte in 2015, there were just six cautions total in 600 miles of competition.
On Lap 25, a caution flew and took out three of the first six drivers in the running order after they slid through some oil on the track in Turn 3.
It started when pole-sitter, Jones was making a move on race leader Hamlin, but slid in the oil and made contact with the wall. From there his JGR teammate, Daniel Suarez slid and had his car saved until coming back up the track into the wall where he was met by Elliott Sadler. All three drivers went at least one lap down
Suarez rebounded to finish 12th, while Sadler came home 28th and Jones 31st.
Next weekend, the XFINITY Series will tackle Pocono Raceway for the first time in series history.
Ryan Newman Still Happy with Richard Childress Racing
With speculation that Ryan Newman might be out of a ride at Richard Childress Racing following the 2016 season, he is ecstatic to be with the team.
In the third and final year of his current contract with RCR, Newman has experienced the ups and downs of a race team. This is something that he has welcomed in the past, making him an established veteran of the sport.
“Tying it all together, that’s the toughest part of our whole sport,” Newman told Speedway Digest. “One bad pit stop, one bad moment, one bad strategy call, one bad move as a driver, one bad restart can take you out of the race. There was a time in our sport that I think you had to be the best at everything, but now you need to damn near be the best at everything.”
In his 15th year in the Sprint Cup Series, Newman currently sits 17th in the standings, two points shy of the Chase cutoff after 11 races. As the halfway point of the race to the Chase approaches, the 38-year-old feels the pressure to perform.
”We’ve performed better than we’ve finished,” Newman elaborated. “We’ve had three tire failures in 11 races. Some of it has been self-inflicted, some of it hasn’t. But in the end, it’s part of racing and hopefully we got it out of the way.”
The Indiana native has raced for his livelihood several different times. In 2013, a week after being informed that he would not be back with Stewart-Haas Racing, he won the Brickyard 400.
But this year is different.
Over the span of his first two seasons with RCR, Newman was known for consistency, accumulating 31 top 10 finishes and making the Chase both years. He made it to the championship race with a shot at the title in 2014, his first year with the organization. Finishing second at Homestead that evening has been his best result in the No. 31 machine.
Heading into the summer months, the circuit is heading to some of Newman’s better tracks. He has nine career poles at Charlotte, with a best result of second. In a couple of months, the Cup Series heads to New Hampshire, which is arguably the best track for him with three career wins, 17 top 10 finishes and an average finish of 13.5.
“I think our cars are better than they were at this time last year hands down,” Newman said. “You’ve got to put everything together in this series. The competition level is so tough. You can’t afford to have one mistake.”
Through 11 races in 2016, the No. 31 car has qualified three top five starts. That is the same number that he had in all of 2015.
The chemistry within the organization is something that Newman is proud to be a part of and would seemingly be tough for him to leave. Crew chief Luke Lambert and he have adapted to each other’s preferences, but the NASCAR veteran knows that the performance needs to improve.
“I’ve never been a part of an organization that worked more closely together like this,” Newman said. “To me, it’s as good as it can get. Once we can get the success it will get better yet.”
RCR is in a current slump of 84 races without going to Victory Lane. Ever since Kevin Harvick left the team at the end of 2013 season, the organization has struggled to find its groove back.
However, this season there is more to be proud of.
Newman’s teammate Austin Dillon currently sits eighth in points. Though he admits he can’t learn much from the third-year driver, the two work closely together and just recently began putting all eight cylinders together.
“I think it’s been in a rebuilding process,” he said. “I think our cars have been competitive. I think that at one point in 2014 our engines were our weak point. I think last year we started missing it a little on the car side and I think we are in the process of putting it all back together.”
As 2016 progresses, Newman is essentially driving for his life. With Richard Childress’ grandson, Ty Dillon waiting in the helm for a ride in the Cup Series, it’s more than likely that one of the current drivers at RCR has to go. Paul Menard has sponsorship from his father and the older Dillon is having the best year of his tenure with the team.
Newman is one of the older statesmen in the garage and has no plans of retiring as long as he has a competitive car.
“As long as they will have me drive the racecar and it’s a good racecar and it’s fun to do it then I’ll do it as long as it makes sense,” he said.
With his future in question, Newman admits that he wants to figure out where he stands quickly. The further that it progresses into the season, the harder it will be to find a competitive ride for the following campaign.
“We are so focused on this year and winning races to get ourselves a Chase birth,” Newman said. “There’s a time to talk about it and you always want to get it done sooner rather than later. I just hope it’s not later.”