Dillon ready to make jump
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Austin Dillon is in the Great Hall of NASCAR's Hall of Fame wearing his signature cowboy hat, jeans and a T-shirt.
He's leaning against the No. 39 truck in which he recently made NASCAR history as the first driver to win a national event on dirt in more than 40 years. The iconic No. 3 Cup car -- he uses the number on the car in which he leads the Nationwide Series standings and is expected to bring back to the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 -- is on Glory Road over his shoulder.
How he will handle the pressure of filling in for injured three-time champion Tony Stewart in the somewhat iconic No. 14 this weekend at Michigan is the main topic of conversation.
So much for one so young.
Yet Dillon is unfazed.
He isn't feeling pressured.
He's as ready to handle whatever is thrown at him as any 23-year-old driver the sport has seen in a long, long time.
Part of what makes him unique and able to handle the tough questions and tough situations is he doesn't care -- but in a good way.
If somebody writes something bad about him on Twitter, he simply blocks them and moves on. If he feels pressure to succeed, he doesn't show it by being rude or evasive.
He perfectly fits the profile mentioned here a few weeks ago when I wrote the Cup series needed to get younger to bring new energy to the sport.
He perfectly fits the profile Stewart-Haas Racing needs to fill the void of its future Hall of Famer.
Being chosen to replace Stewart this weekend -- and likely a few others -- is huge. In a way it legitimizes Dillon's talent more than his Truck Series title in 2011 or his current position in the Nationwide standings.
It shows he's not simply a spoiled rich kid who gets the best of everything because his grandpa, Richard Childress, owns the organization that supplies him rides.
"Max Papis put it in pretty good words, 'If your career ended tomorrow, that's pretty cool that someone called other than your grandfather wanting you to drive something,'" Dillon said of Papis, who replaced Stewart on the road course at Watkins Glen this past weekend.
Does it bring Dillon more respect? It should.
But as Dillon reminds, "Jimmie Johnson has won [five] championships and I don't think his respect is there. For me, it's more for my own satisfaction. For anybody else, it's their own opinion."
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And if somebody doesn't like it, Dillon simply doesn't care any more than he cares that some think the only reason he's a rising star is because of family ties to Richard Childress Racing.
"It doesn't even bother me, man," Dillon said. "It's an opinion. I'm confident in what I do. I work hard and I feel like if I'm doing something wrong I beat up myself as bad as anybody would, so I don't have to worry about other people."
It's still significant that Stewart and SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli picked Dillon. You can argue Dillon's relationship with Bass Pro Shops, which sponsors his Nationwide car and Stewart's Cup car, was a factor.
But Stewart, out indefinitely after suffering a broken tibia and fibula two weeks ago in a sprint car race, wouldn't put Dillon in his seat if he didn't think Dillon had the talent to handle it.
"That's a big statement for them to ask him to do that," said Dillon's father, Mike.
It's even bigger when you consider SHR is taking a huge asset from RCR in driver Kevin Harvick and sponsor Budweiser in 2014. Childress easily could have said no to his grandson driving the 14 just out of spite.
He didn't, because he understands the significance of his grandson being hand-picked.
"He's always told me his goal would be to want people wanting me as a driver," Austin Dillon said.
Who wouldn't want Dillon? He has the looks, the talent and just the right temperament. If he can handle the pressure of bringing back the No. 3 -- it hasn't been driven in the Cup series since Dale Earnhardt died in 2001 -- he can handle anything.
And he doesn't hesitate to say driving the 3 in Trucks and Nationwide, as well as growing up in a racing family at RCR, has helped prepare him for this moment.
"My grandfather is what pushes me," Dillon said. "I know how hard he works and how much time he puts into it. … I never would want to let him down or any of the guys in my company."
So what, if anything, makes Dillon feel pressure?
"Not running good," his dad said. "That's his biggest aggravation."
Not that Dillon has much experience running bad for more than a race or two at a time. In two full seasons in the Truck Series he finished fifth and first in the standings. He was third a year ago in his first full Nationwide season, and now he's first by three points over Sam Hornish Jr. and five over Regan Smith.
There's no reason to believe he won't be successful in Cup as well, even though he keeps saying "if" he runs full-time there next year instead of "when" as we all know will happen.
And in the 3.
"I'm hoping," Dillon said with a smile. "I know that is the main objective from RCR."
It should be. The Cup series needs Dillon and it needs him to be in the 3 so fans who haven't been able to move past the death of Earnhardt can have somebody new to pull for.
Some, like the fan who wrote on Twitter that he wouldn't attend another race if the 3 comes back, won't like it. Dillon can handle that even though most of what he hears is positive.
Mark Garrow reports Juan Pablo Montoya is out at Ganassi Racing at the end of the season. Austin Dillon talks about subbing for Tony Stewart this weekend at Michigan.
"The way I look at things, as a world, I guess is like what really matters to everybody is very small in the big scheme of things," Dillon said. "Us and NASCAR, every day we look at it as the biggest part of our world.
"But as far as everybody else, it's small. That's the way you have to look at things."
Perspective. From one so young.
"I've been surprised over the years, both of them [including younger brother Ty], how they respond to the questions you guys ask and how they take these type of situations," Dillon's dad said. "You don't train that."
Dillon got that from watching other drivers come through RCR, from watching his grandfather deal with them and issues.
"As far as when it comes to certain things, you learn not to worry about them … do my own thing," Austin Dillon said.
That doesn't mean he really doesn't care. It just means he has the right perspective and supporting cast around him.
"If somebody tells me I'm being an A-S-S or something … I have a great group of guys around me that keep me humble," Dillon said, avoiding saying a bad word out loud. "I tell them if I step out of line just let me know. I hope it's always that way."
It's that perspective that enables Dillon to spread himself thinner than normal this week with the Nationwide championship potentially on the line. He accepts starting from the back of Saturday's race at the Mid-Ohio road course because he'll miss qualifying to be in Michigan with the Cup team.
He also believes, despite his shortcomings as a road-course racer, that he can win at Mid-Ohio -- or at least do well enough that it won't cost him or his team the championship.
"That's very important, but things that happen like this you have to take advantage of them and use the opportunity that is there," Dillon said. "I'm ready for it. I want to accept the challenge and go after it."
It's a lot for one so young.
But Dillon is ready for it.
And NASCAR's premier series is ready for Dillon.
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