Austin Dillon fueled by the No. 3
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The announcement is "pretty close," Austin Dillon said.
Two years after winning a NASCAR Truck series title in a No. 3 Chevrolet fielded by his grandfather's NASCAR team, possibly still basking in the glow of a first Nationwide Series title he could clinch on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the same number for the same organization, the 23-year-old under the ever-present cowboy hat is expected to steward the iconic number back into the Sprint Cup Series for the first time in 13 years.
There will be much in play. As evidenced by departing teammate Kevin Harvick's snub three weeks ago, a reference to nepotism is never far from the surface and the easiest slight to conjure although Dillon is on the verge of amassing titles in two of NASCAR's top three series.
Dillon knows he will have to continue to justify and validate. That's always been part of the deal when he decided to partake in the family business, joining his grandfather Richard Childress and father, Mike, RCR's vice president of competition.
"From the very beginning I've been tested," Austin Dillon said. "It's nothing new. I don't think it's any more this year than the last year or the year before that or even the first year I started. I'm used to it. It's nothing to me really, nothing at all."
Danny Stockman, who debuted full time with Dillon in the Truck series and has remained as crew chief in Nationwide, said Dillon isn't bothered with nepotism assumptions.
"He knows he's worked hard to get what he's got and anybody in his position would do it the exact same way," he said. "He can't help his grandpa is Richard Childress. But he was brought up that way. He works hard to be a race car driver and the kid's got talent. He's not just making laps and running 25th every week. He can do it. He works hard and he couldn't care less what people think."
But that number. He cares deeply about that, and everyone understands. The "3" was last used in Sprint Cup in the 2001 Daytona 500 by Dale Earnhardt, who died after being involved in a last-lap crash. Wielding the 3, which is so strongly associated with Earnhardt but was first the Childress family number -- raced by the owner himself -- comes with pressure, he admitted. Fan reaction was tepid when Dillon debuted in a black truck with the digit on the door in 2009, but a gradual acceptance has followed. That he wins in it undoubtedly helps. Fans lauded him through the fence at Eldora Speedway this summer, expressing support for him bearing the digit in Sprint Cup as he and his team celebrated their win in the Truck series race held there for the first time.
"I feel like a lot of it is the number," Dillon said of the scrutiny he receives. "I feel the pressure of the number because I want to make it run well for the fans, keep it up front. It's a very special number to our family.
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"Having the opportunity, the equipment, that stuff is always going to be with me from the very beginning. The number is more for me, putting pressure on myself. I like doing that. It's something that pushes me. Not everybody can say they have a number that pushes them, and I can, so that's nice."
Dillon and Stockman -- who said he does not know what his assignment will be for 2014 -- have discussed that aspect of what will be a highly publicized rookie campaign at NASCAR's highest level.
"Basically, all he wants to do is make everyone proud of him. It is very stressful," Stockman said. "You definitely can't argue that. He's going to have to go out there and perform and do the best job he can. Hopefully, everyone is accepting."
Adding the Nationwide title would help. Although he is winless this season, Dillon has produced five top-5s and seven top-10s in the past seven races and expanded his lead over Sam Hornish Jr. to eight points with a third-place finish at Phoenix last week. Dillon has exuded a reassured confidence through the run toward the championship, which belies, Stockman said, his nature away from the track but personifies his style in the car.
"Austin is just a wide-open type, always on the go," Stockman said. "Doesn't sit down, doesn't sleep much, but when he gets in a race car he's really focused. And he doesn't do anything that puts himself in predicaments, and he doesn't tear up a ton of equipment. You look at his stats and he runs a lot of laps. If you knew him outside of the race car you would think, 'Oh, man this kid is going to just tear up a lot of stuff.' "
Hornish also has five top-5s in the past seven races but damaging 17th-place finishes consecutively at Dover (costing him the points lead) and Kansas. The drivers have become accustomed to the other being in close proximity in the standings and on the track.
"It's like I look in my mirror, he's right there. I look in front of me, he's right there," Hornish said. "We've ran around each other. There's been maybe two or three races out of this 10, 12, 15 races that we haven't been within two or three spots of each other in the finishing order, which makes it a tall task to go out there and try to take eight points away."
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