It has been said that to whom much is given, much is expected. And there’s no doubt that new NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Austin Dillon has been given – and will continue to be given – all the resources he needs to succeed to as he prepares to ascend to the Sprint Cup level.
But with that said, he’ll still have to capitalize on those resources – just as he did when he won the Camping World Truck Series title in 2011 and won the NNS title last night with a 12th-place finish. You can have all the advantages in the world, but it means nothing if you’re not talented enough to make them work for you.
And Dillon has most definitely proven his talent. Truthfully, that should be enough to quiet his legion of critics that say he’s simply been spoiled rotten by his “Pop-Pop,” team owner and grandfather Richard Childress, and that he isn’t the right guy to bring Dale Earnhardt’s legendary No. 3 back to Cup, as he’s expected to do next year.
But, of course, it won’t be enough. Even if Dillon manages to win a Cup title in that No. 3 – a number that really isn’t a number, but an embodiment of NASCAR itself – he’ll always have to deal with that problem. Somebody will always be raging, even while Dillon is at peace.
“I feel like for me, personally, I’ve done a good job getting to where I’m at today,” he said Thursday before his fateful weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway began.
“Things happen for a reason. You can’t control certain things…I don’t lack any confidence. For lack of better words, I’m comfortable in my own skin and happy with where I’m at right now.”
For a guy that takes a ton of flak for supposedly having it easy, there was nothing easy about how Dillon won the NNS title last night. Burdened with what he later called the worst car he’s had all season, he was unable to make his way to the front while his title rival, Sam Hornish Jr., looked set to have a Top-5 outing.
But Dillon and crew chief Danny Stockman wouldn’t be denied. After Stockman took numerous swings to try and cure the car’s loose-handling condition, Dillon finally started to move forward as the laps wound down, cracking the Top 10 with around 35 laps to go.
Dillon had Hornish in his sights. And as long as he did, he knew he would be in good shape. The extended, 12-lap yellow following a multi-car crash with 17 laps left helped Dillon further.
Finally, with the green flag coming back again with five laps to go, both Hornish (re-starting third) and Dillon (re-starting fifth) gave up multiple spots. But with a slim lead in the championship, all Dillon had to do was staying within fair distance of the three-time IndyCar champion.
“The last one, I knew with five to go, our car was good enough,” Dillon said. “If I could somehow get [Hornish] off his rocker, get him frustrated somehow, it would work. I pulled out on him down the frontstretch, but his car was a little better. He got sideways off of [Turn] 4 and kind of got him up against the wall.
“I could see him from then on. Then it was just trying to finish it out. Our car was tight there near the end sliding against the wall. As long as I could see him, I was comfortable.”
It wasn’t the most tidy way to finish off a championship. And to some, being the first driver to claim a NASCAR national series championship without a race win will be enough fodder to slam him.
But above all else, championships are about consistency. With 13 Top-5s, 22 Top-10s, and just three finishes outside the Top-20 all season, Dillon did what he had to do.
Now, the expectations and the pressure are set to skyrocket with his full-time move to NASCAR’s top stage. He believes that he’s ready.
“That level is a little bit bigger of a jump for sure,” Dillon said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge. [Sprint Cup] Rookie of the Year is definitely what we want to get next year. That’s our main focus, and to gain as much experience as I can. Each lap I hit in a Cup car, a Cup motor, is going to be crucial next year. Finishing laps will be huge.
“We got a good plan. I’m looking forward to battling it out next year.”
And presumably, many more years after that.
Austin Dillon will never completely shake the haters. But just as he’s used to them by now, they’ll have to get used to him.