Austin Dillon learns fast: Daytona brings out best in him

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If Austin Dillon were granted three wishes by a genie, they’d likely be:

1) Win a bunch of Sprint Cup championships.

2) Win a bunch of Sprint Cup races.

3) Convince NASCAR to run all 36 races of its season at Daytona International Speedway.

Now, Dillon has the potential to make his first two wishes come true, but the third one is unlikely – even though the 2.5-mile, high-banked superspeedway has quickly proven to be his favorite and best-performing track on the Sprint Cup schedule.

Consider:

* He brought back the infamous No. 3 car for the first time since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona.

* He won the pole for this year’s season-opening 500 at Daytona.

* He earned a (so far) Sprint Cup career-best fifth-place finish Sunday in the Coke Zero 400 – again, at Daytona.

* He was the highest-finishing rookie in Sunday’s race at Daytona.

Maybe he should start calling himself Austin Daytona?

But seriously, Dillon has taken to racing at NASCAR’s most famous racetrack like a duck takes to swimming in DIS’s infamous infield-based Lake Lloyd.

“It’s huge for us getting a top 10, a top 5 – it definitely can change the rookie race,” Dillon said after the race. “We’ve got some momentum now.

“We’ve got the last four races, I think, in the rookie race, and just stay consistent and hopefully we can come out with this thing.  Our cars have been really fast all year, and we’re getting better each week.  I feel like we’re gaining a little bit, and I’m excited about that.”

Kyle Larson had held the early lead in the Rookie of the Year performance, but Dillon has come back with a vengeance in the last few races.

He’s now 13th in the rankings while Larson has dropped to 17th. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup were to start tomorrow, Dillon would make it and Larson wouldn’t.

“We jumped from 18th to 13th in points,” Dillon said. “There’s less positions now, but just got to stay consistent. We had a test at New Hampshire this past week. I felt like it was a good test for us, and we go on and try and keep these runs going for us as a rookie, and I think it’ll close up the rookie points now, too. We’ve gained a lot the last couple weeks, and this will definitely help.”

Although Larson has had his struggles of late, Dillon knows how talented his chief rival for Rookie of the Year is. The way the first half of the season went, Dillon expects just as close of a battle now that the second half of the 36-race season begins this coming Sunday at New Hampshire.

“Kyle has had a great season and I’m kind of putting our season against his because we’re racing for the rookie of the year,” Dillon said. “That was our main goal going into this year. Any other year the last couple years it would be a great season, but the way they’ve run we’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

“We’re hanging in there. We just want to find some more speed at these mile-and-a-halfs, get more consistent. … Experience will come with that, I hope. I feel like our cars are getting better and we’ve been really harping on that as a group at RCR to make our cars better, and I think we’re starting to show.”

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F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.