There’s a difference between attending a Sprint Cup and a K&N Pro East Series event. At the first, you will be able to identify all the players on the track. They’ve been around a while, and if you watch the haulers arrive, it’s a pretty uniform parade of glitzy paintjobs, polished chrome and heavy-duty machinery.
However, most years when I head up to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and I watch the K&N Pro Series East guys set up shop on the infield, it’s a much different kind of experience. There are those with money and those that are here solely for the love of the game. How can you tell the difference? The battered trailer with a single car inside along with a well-loved selection of tools vs. the shiny hauler sporting familiar numbers, paint jobs and yes, even a big stable name on the door.
Gibbs, Waltrip, Hendrick, Earnhardt — they all have made the most of developing a new crop of competitors in this regional series. Mr. Joey Logano enjoyed his meteoric rise to fame via such an endeavor. But when the new kid is taking the corners with a familiar paint job on the door, and a very familiar face on top of the pit box, you look the other way. Of course they will find success! They’ve got the backing of those that have mastered the game of NASCAR racing.
Thus, when a black No. 3 started taking laps at Loudon a few years ago, I raised an eyebrow. I mean, it was obviously “the No. 3.” A young driver named Austin Dillon sat in the seat. I discovered he was the grandson of Richard Childress and decided wasn’t this nice? Childress was indulging in a bit of well-deserved personal promotion. He put the family in a car that represents the height of accomplishment in our sport.
Dillon performed well. I expected nothing less. It came down to that money thing again. I’ve seen it year after year. Those that can buy new cars instead of beat out the fenders of the old invariably outperform the shade-tree operations. Parity doesn’t much live around these parts. So, he should’ve been able to, and he did, run up front with those contending for the points lead, finishing second in the 2008 standings to Matt Kobyluck’s No. 40.
Still, I remained unimpressed. He spent much of 2009 expanding his seat time in various series, but nowhere did that No. 3 consistently compete. It appeared as if he was just dabbling in the pond.
This year, he moved on up to the Camping World Truck Series full-time and I started paying attention.
There is a huge leap in competition between the regional series and the trucks. Yes, that young man raced against veterans in the old series, but those experienced drivers were not previous Sprint Cup competitors. The wheelmen in the Truck Series take beatin’ and bangin’ a bit more seriously. Hunger can be seen every week they fight for the trophy. This is where it is determined whether you can really stand up with the big boys before even thinking about swimming in the ocean with the sharks.
I stand pleasantly surprised.
Dillon scored the pole position two weeks in a row, first at Texas and then Michigan. Yes, I know, that’s the machine, the money still talking. But his performance during those races has been indicative of a rookie driver who has suddenly found his feet. When you’re running three-wide in the corners while you’re holding off Kyle Busch and knocking on Ron Hornaday’s door, you’ve got something exciting. Not to mention the third- and fifth-place finishes, respectively.
Oh, he’s still a rookie, and young enough that there will be a fair share of mistakes made. We should not expect to see him win a championship this year, or even next season. But be prepared to see that black No. 3 truck roll into victory lane sometime soon.
It takes more than a solid engine and coordinated crew to win a race. It takes focus, determination and an utter lack of fear, especially when known predators are on your tail.
Austin Dillon has demonstrated he has brought the goods to the table. With or without Grandpa’s support, we’ve got us a new kid on the block. And ain’t that exciting!
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The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.
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