Jul 6, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
If Austin Dillon were granted three wishes by a genie, they’d likely be:
1) Win a bunch of Sprint Cup championships.
2) Win a bunch of Sprint Cup races.
3) Convince NASCAR to run all 36 races of its season at Daytona International Speedway.
Now, Dillon has the potential to make his first two wishes come true, but the third one is unlikely – even though the 2.5-mile, high-banked superspeedway has quickly proven to be his favorite and best-performing track on the Sprint Cup schedule.
* He brought back the infamous No. 3 car for the first time since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona.
* He won the pole for this year’s season-opening 500 at Daytona.
* He earned a (so far) Sprint Cup career-best fifth-place finish Sunday in the Coke Zero 400 – again, at Daytona.
* He was the highest-finishing rookie in Sunday’s race at Daytona.
Maybe he should start calling himself Austin Daytona?
But seriously, Dillon has taken to racing at NASCAR’s most famous racetrack like a duck takes to swimming in DIS’s infamous infield-based Lake Lloyd.
“It’s huge for us getting a top 10, a top 5 – it definitely can change the rookie race,” Dillon said after the race. “We’ve got some momentum now.
“We’ve got the last four races, I think, in the rookie race, and just stay consistent and hopefully we can come out with this thing. Our cars have been really fast all year, and we’re getting better each week. I feel like we’re gaining a little bit, and I’m excited about that.”
Kyle Larson had held the early lead in the Rookie of the Year performance, but Dillon has come back with a vengeance in the last few races.
He’s now 13th in the rankings while Larson has dropped to 17th. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup were to start tomorrow, Dillon would make it and Larson wouldn’t.
“We jumped from 18th to 13th in points,” Dillon said. “There’s less positions now, but just got to stay consistent. We had a test at New Hampshire this past week. I felt like it was a good test for us, and we go on and try and keep these runs going for us as a rookie, and I think it’ll close up the rookie points now, too. We’ve gained a lot the last couple weeks, and this will definitely help.”
Although Larson has had his struggles of late, Dillon knows how talented his chief rival for Rookie of the Year is. The way the first half of the season went, Dillon expects just as close of a battle now that the second half of the 36-race season begins this coming Sunday at New Hampshire.
“Kyle has had a great season and I’m kind of putting our season against his because we’re racing for the rookie of the year,” Dillon said. “That was our main goal going into this year. Any other year the last couple years it would be a great season, but the way they’ve run we’ve put a lot of pressure on ourselves.
“We’re hanging in there. We just want to find some more speed at these mile-and-a-halfs, get more consistent. … Experience will come with that, I hope. I feel like our cars are getting better and we’ve been really harping on that as a group at RCR to make our cars better, and I think we’re starting to show.”
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