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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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.