Austin Dillon to Face Extra Pressure as a Rookie in RCR No. 3
By Matt Weaver — Austin Dillon has won two NASCAR championships in three seasons but the competition, and pressure, is set to increase two-fold next season when he takes the No. 3 Chevrolet back to the Sprint Cup Series for Richard Childress Racing.
When Dillon arrives at Daytona Speedweeks in February, it will be the first time that the No. 3 has competed in the Cup Series in an official capacity since the 2001 Daytona 500, where the legendary Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of that race.
Needless to say, Dillon has big shoes to fill no matter how the RCR brain trust will try to sidestep the topic next season. And if trends from the recent past are any indication, Dillon will have to put on his cowboy hat and do the Texas Two-Step to avoid some of the tougher questions.
The Sprint Cup schedule has not been very kind to rookies over the past decade. Even in an era where qualified upstarts are far and few between, even the most decorated prospects have had at least one year of a steep learning curve. This is best illustrated by reigning Series Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse, who won back-to-back Nationwide Series championships prior to his graduation.
In his first full season, Stenhouse scored only three top-10s and finished 19th in the final standings, a result that may be hard for fans of the prestigious No. 3 to stomach.
Dillon has been a perennial winner and champion at every level of racing he has participated in and success in the Sprint Cup Series will likely follow in time. But will running the iconic No. 3 give him a smaller margin of error than the rest of his stacked rookie class that also includes Kyle Larson and Justin Allgaier?
Just like it had been in the levels prior to the Sprint Cup Series, running that number comes with certain demands and expectations — winning races and championships. And outside of Kevin Harvick, who seemingly rose above his equipment at RCR, the team has struggled to win races and make the Chase in recent seasons.
So until Childress can find the formula to chase down Jimmie Johnson and the current Cup megapowers, the criticism of not meeting expectations may be louder than if Dillon was running a No. 33 like he has in previous Cup starts.
As if aware of the potential pitfalls, Childress sat down with his grandson before making his final decision and made sure that Dillon was prepared for the challenge.
“We had quite a few discussions on it, and sure, there’s pressure with it, but I think the pressure from the number drives him,” Childress said. “I’ll tell you what, he’s an amazing kid.”
He will have to be amazing — just like he showed at times in both Trucks and Nationwide — because the demands of the No. 3 car will accept nothing less.