For one of the most-heralded Sprint Cup rookies in recent memory, Austin Dillon has had some trouble getting his 2014 in gear.
Granted, he is a rookie in the highest echelon of American stock-car racing, but in comparison to fellow 2014 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year candidate Kyle Larson, Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing group just seem to be lacking.
Granted, they put the No. 3 Chevrolet on the pole for the Daytona 500 back in February and managed to score a top-10 (if only by the skin of their teeth), but while the team that was a lock for the RotY victory at season’s end has struggled, Larson’s No. 42 Ganassi Chevrolet has reeled off two top-fives and four top-10s in nine starts, including a narrow runner-up finish at Fontana.
Add to that the fact that the ninth-place finish at Daytona was Dillon’s single top-10 this season, and it’s easy to wonder if Dillon might miss out on that RotY title this season.
Now, it is only nine races into the Sprint Cup season, so it is too early to tell whether or not Dillon will mount a charge towards the front at some point or the other. But with the way Dillon’s crew has performed this season it would be easier to call it now and say that they will remain where they are. They’ll be consistent, but the excellent finishes will be out of their reach.
On top of that, Dillon hasn’t been one to really go out and snag results. Sure, the exception to the rule is his five wins in the Camping World Truck Series to go along with the 2011 CWTS championship. But two wins in his rookie Nationwide campaign followed by a winless championship season doesn’t point to excellence. It points to a driver who lucked into a championship when the main contenders ran into issues.
Dillon is going through the equivalent of that one superstar college football player who becomes the first-round NFL Draft pick for a major team only to falter on the big stage.
Now, his worst finish of the season happened at Richmond Saturday, where he finished 27th, two laps down. Other than yet, he’s finished inside of the top-20 in every 2014 race beforehand, with a trio of 11th-place runs at Bristol, Fontana and Darlington helping to keep him in the 12th-place slot in the points standings. It could be worse for the Childress driver, that much is true.
He could get lucky and post a strong run at Talladega on Sunday. On top of that, he could have some more strong runs later in the year once his No. 3 team finds footing. But he is a rookie, and right now he’s going through the rookie trials and tribulations of a Sprint Cup driver.
He could rebound and make the RotY race a close one, and for all intents and purposes could even be a Chase contender. But if the first nine races are any indicator of the rest of the season for Dillon, don’t expect much out of that crew.
I’m trying to be objective about Dillon and not view him through the lens of being Richard Childress’ grandson. He is talented, but he is not a top tier talent. That applies to his time in the lower series as well. Yes, he has championships in both, but not a lot of wins. Money goes a long way in the lower divisions toward keeping you up near the front and up in the points, even if you can’t seal the deal. Again, blood relations aside, is his racing pedigree all that different than other drivers promoted to Cup (like Ricky Stenhouse, who has two nationwide championships but only a handful of wins in that series)? Both are in good equipment but are still learning. Look at the learning curve Joey Logano experienced when he moved up to Cup racing. Guy would probably have multiple nationwide championships had he spent a few seasons there full time. He’s just now coming into his own. Some guys take longer than others to develop, and as long as they don’t outstrip the patience of their owners and sponsors, they keep their ride. I think Dillon was promoted too soon but as long as sponsors are lining up, grandpappy won’t be kicking him out of the car anytime soon.