Column By: JORDAN BIANCHI / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Looking into his rearview mirror and seeing the field behind him as he sped across the finish line to win the season-opening Daytona 500 is something Austin Dillon won’t ever forget.
The memory of winning is ever-present, especially so this weekend as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 Saturday night (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It marks the first time Dillon has raced at Daytona since his win in February.
“It’s a good feeling coming to the checkered flag and the entire field is behind you,” Dillon said. “Anytime you can relive those moments, you try to. It’s kind of like a dream. You come to the checkered flag and all you see is people behind you and nothing in front of you.”
Dillon’s win in NASCAR’s biggest race kicked off a national media blitz that included assorted appearances on television shows, a visit to the New York Stock Exchange where he rang the closing bell, and meeting NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, whose hands are so big Dillon said they wrapped around his twice when they shook.
But since that Daytona triumph, Dillon hasn’t had much to celebrate. His best result is a 10th at Auto Club Speedway in March, while six times he’s finished outside the top 20. This inconsistency explains why the Richard Childress Racing driver currently sits 19th in points heading into NASCAR’s annual summer visit to Daytona.
Dillon attributes some of his struggles to the growing pains of adjusting to the new Camaro body style over the offseason, as Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory is the manufacturer’s lone win.
“A lot of people were pumped-up about the Chevy Camaro and we haven’t delivered the wins that we thought our camp would this year as far as that goes,” Dillon said. “We’re working, though, as a group to get closer.”
The hope for RCR and Chevrolet is that both will continue to make gradual performance gains through the summer and by the time the playoffs begin in September giving their drivers a chance to contend for the championship. Offering RCR encouragement that it is improving is Dillon recording finishes of 12th (Pocono) and 14th (Michigan) in recent weeks.
A return trip to Daytona also brings renewed optimism, presenting a prime opportunity for Dillon to recapture the success he enjoyed at the beginning of the season. With restrictor plates and the draft leveling the playing field and migrating advantages some teams may hold over others, Dillon feels he can contend Saturday night better than we would at other tracks where RCR lags behind.
“I always enjoy coming down here and have the opportunity to have a chance to win a race,” Dillon said. “You feel better when you get to the speedway because the plan feels level.”