After somewhat trying seasons in his first two years in Sprint Cup – 20th in 2014 and 21st in 2015 – Austin Dillon is riding high thus far in 2016.
The grandson of team owner Richard Childress is off to his best start in the Cup series, having wracked up finishes of ninth (Daytona 500), 11th (Atlanta) and fifth last week at Las Vegas.
Dillon now prepares to take on Phoenix International Raceway in Sunday’s Good Sam 500. He’s had three strong practices Friday and Saturday, and will start 15th in Sunday’s race.
“It’s been a good start to the year for our Dow team,” Dillon told reporters at Phoenix. “We have just been plugging along trying to eliminate mistakes each and every week.
“Things have been going well for us. Hopefully, we can continue this streak and continue our run to the front of the field.”
Dillon, who is currently ninth in the standings, is still in search of his first career Sprint Cup win, and Phoenix offers him one of his best chances to date.
“I think if you look back to last year, we have kind of had this streak going to the end of last year,” Dillon said. “We have just tried to eliminate mistakes and make me a better driver and our team better race cars. The work is paying off we just have to keep plugging along and never stop working.”
Dillon says one of the biggest reasons for his success this season has been crew chief Slugger Labbe.
“I really enjoy working with Slugger and my group of engineers that are with me,” Dillon said. “When it comes to communication with Slugger, we are like two brothers a little bit.
“We are both very aggressive personalities. He is not afraid to tell me when he thinks I’ve messed up and I’m not afraid to tell him when I think he has messed up.
“The good thing about that is when you leave you can go home and drink a beer or Coke or whatever you wanted to after the race.
The duo had a bit of a testy exchange at Las Vegas, but afterward, all was quickly forgotten – particularly after the strong fifth-place finish.
“It’s a part of being intense,” Dillon said. “I’ve been intense in all the different levels of racing I’ve come up through here. I felt like we lacked a little bit of that intensity that I’m used to when we got to the Cup Series.
“Slugger kind of brought that back to me. If you listen to Danny Stockman (Austin’s crew chief in the Truck and Xfinity Series) and me in our previous championship runs, we were pretty aggressive with each other on the radio.
“We are not afraid to tell each other ‘hey this sucks’ or ‘we have to do something different.’ Slugger is really good at being blunt with things and I’ve learned to be able to take it and he can take it too.
“That is what I love about him. I can tell him right to his face, ‘hey this is no good’. He will go to work on it. Same with me, if he thinks I’m not driving right, I will go to work too. We’ve got a pretty good understanding throughout our team that we are a family on and off the track.
“If we get into each other it’s like the big brother/little brother rule – you can mess with him all you want, but no one else can. When it comes down to it we’ve got each other’s backs. It’s just we want the best, we want to win.”