Austin Dillon sets sights on Bristol Cup dirt race win

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As the NASCAR Cup Series heads for its first dirt race in over half a century, many are eyeing Kyle Larson as a favorite to win Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

But Larson himself is eyeing another contender.

When Austin Dillon was informed Tuesday by a media member that Larson had spoken of him as a potential threat for victory, he took the compliment in stride.

“(Larson’s) good at anything he gets in – I’m just glad he mentioned me,” Dillon said in a media teleconference. “That’s pretty awesome, really. Makes my day. Now I’ve gotta step up and perform.”

MORE: What drivers are saying about racing on dirt at Bristol this weekend

Dillon and Larson were among the full-time Cup drivers who competed last week at the Bristol Dirt Nationals to prepare for their own event at “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile.”

Running in the 604 Late Models class for Cory Hedgecock Racing, Dillon earned three wins in his No. 3 entry.

He picked up heat and feature wins on March 16, then added a second feature win on March 20, the final night of the event.

Dillon’s previous dirt experience includes winning the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway in 2013.

Eight years later, Dillon believes his knowledge of dirt racing across different vehicles will make him as prepared as anyone in the Cup field. But he also sees how his competitors have sought ways to build up their own dirt experience.

“The competition in the Cup Series … I think it’s the highest form of motorsports, the best drivers in the world,” Dillon said. “All of them are doing their job, preparation-wise, off the track, running other cars they’re not comfortable running in just to get on dirt and understand what the transition of the track is. There’s a lot of smart dirt crew chiefs out there also that people are probably bringing in trying to understand how they can make their cars drive better on dirt.

“… I think there’s some guys with less dirt experience that are going to be surprised. But there’s so many good race car drivers at the Cup level that have dirt experience or some sort of dirt experience they’ll be able to lean on. Not many of the guys at this point in the Cup level – maybe, a couple – have ever not been on dirt. I think everybody has some form of dirt experience at this point.”

Even so, this weekend will be much different than the norm in NASCAR’s premier division.

Two practice sessions on Friday will be followed by four 15-lap heats on Saturday that will set the lineup for Sunday’s race. Passing points will also be in play during the heats, giving drivers incentive to get to the front in order to claim a better starting position for Sunday.

Dillon says teams will discover that a completely different approach is needed in setting up their Cup cars for dirt, as opposed to asphalt.

“That’s what’s gonna be fun for all the crew chiefs, car chiefs, mechanics out there – to really do things opposite,” he said. “The thought process has to be so open-minded when we get there to the track.

“Not only are you worried about the set-up, but you’re worried about the car: Make sure that the heights are right, you’re not rolling the nose under. There’s a lot of things we do at a dirt track to just make sure the car goes around the track.

“It might not always be, ‘Hey, we need just a little more wedge to be perfect.’ It might be, ‘We need more clearance, so I don’t hit the track right here and get tight.'”

Sunday’s main event will be 250 laps. During that time, the dirt half-mile of Bristol will undergo many changes. While Dillon feels a dominant line could emerge, everyone will be searching all over the place for speed.

Dillon is confident he can find it in the dirt that’s been laid down on the Bristol high banks. He calls it a “sandy” dirt that reminds him of the kind of tracks he grew up racing on but doesn’t build a cushion up high.

“This stuff kind of creates a fluff,” he explained. “It gets up there and you can gain grip, because it might be wet up there for a while. But it’s not something you can use as a curb to catch you.

“It’s just different, and I’m glad it came from around here, because I feel like I’ve ran on it a lot and know when it has grip and when it doesn’t.”