Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CONCORD, NC – You would be hard-pressed to find a driver more optimistic or more confident than Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
There’s a new race format for Saturday’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race (6 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and for the first time ever, a restrictor-plate on the race cars – however both competitive twists seemed to only encourage the 28-year old from nearby Lewisville, North Carolina, who will be making his All-Star race debut.
Dillon has good reason to smile. His first career win came at Charlotte Motor Speedway last May in the Coca-Cola 600 and his second career win came in February’s season-opening Daytona 500, a restrictor-plate race.
So for the first time, Dillon – the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 – doesn’t have to try to race his way into the big show, he’s in it and he’s ready to go.
“It feels great,” Dillon said smiling. “I remember coming here the last couple years and worrying about getting through in the Open. Now I don’t have to worry about that.
“And with the new package I think it’s anybody’s race to win really. We’re going to go hard and see if we can bring home a million dollars.”
Weather hampered some on-track activity and preparation time Friday, but Dillon said he was looking forward to the four-segment, 80-lap race. And being new to the show isn’t a bad thing. There has been only one repeat winner in the last 20 years of the event – Jimmie Johnson has won four times – so if the trend continues, Dillon feels he’s got as good a shot as anyone.
“I think it’s going to be intense,” Dillon predicted. “I only made like about three-quarters of a lap before it started raining [on Friday].
“The draft will be big,” he acknowledged. “Cars in front of you, you’ll go a lot faster.… I think it’s going to be awesome, it’s going to be what the All-Star race is supposed be, a wild mess. That will probably happen Saturday night and with the smaller amount of practice we have will even intensify that. We’ll see what we can do.”
Dillon started on the pole for his very first Open race – the All-Star qualifier, in 2014 and turned in his best finish – runner-up. And it is noteworthy, Dillon has finished every single lap in the Open races he ran, a not so easy feat in the non-points, more frantic win-at-all-costs style of the race.
Dillon’s victory in the 600 last year certainly makes Charlotte a track where he feels particularly comfortable. And getting a chance to race in one of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ biggest events is a welcome reward.
This year, 17 drivers are already eligible to compete in the All-Star event and four more will be added following The Open – the three stage winners and the winner of the Fan Vote.
“I think there will be some really aggressive driving out there,” Dillon predicted with a smile. “I think everyone will put it on the line when it comes down to it.”