Like him or not, Austin Dillon appears to be here to stay

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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.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”