The impact of his move into NASCAR's premier series isn't lost on Austin Dillon, even though he's yet to make a green-flag lap in his first full season. He spent Tuesday in the greater Cincinnati area, where he stopped at a Kroger grocery store to unveil a new Cheerios box with his car number on the front -- without question, a first for the new driver of the legendary No. 3 -- and where those in line for autographs came from far and wide.
"People actually drove down six hours from Michigan to come to the autograph session," he told NASCAR.com afterward by telephone. "And there were a lot of people with Dale (Earnhardt) stuff on, coming from a long ways away to say hello, and that they're excited about seeing the 3 back and seeing it back on the track. That was pretty special today. That was the best part -- having people from Michigan and Pittsburgh and other random places coming all the way to Ohio."
It's all part of a much bigger transition for the former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, who next month will return the No. 3 to competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the first time since Earnhardt's fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. Since the formal announcement last month that he would indeed take his number up to NASCAR's top level with him, everything has seemed bigger -- from the breadth of fans at autograph signings, to the size of the Sprint Cup shop at Richard Childress Racing, to the crowd of photographers surrounding him at the recent Daytona test.
So yes, given the intertwined legacies of both Dillon and his car number, this all is a very big deal already. Now, just imagine if he goes out and wins the Daytona 500.
It's hardly an outlandish notion, given that Dillon was fastest at what due to rain became a single-day Sprint Cup test earlier this month at Daytona International Speedway, with RCR teammates Brian Scott (in a No. 33) and Matt Crafton (substituting in Paul Menard's No. 27) right behind. Dillon said Tuesday that crew chief Gil Martin plans to bring the same vehicle from testing back to Speedweeks as his primary car. And Dillon is most at home on big restrictor-plate tracks, which have been known to produce surprises like Trevor Bayne's victory in the Daytona 500 in 2011.
"I'm pretty jacked up and excited about it," he said. "It was unbelievable to be in the car like that and go to the top of the board. It's good for your company to see one, two, and three on the board and know you had some speed down there. It's a test, everybody knows it's a test, but it is nice know that you don't have to come back and find two seconds in your race car, or a second and a half you can't find. If you can go down there and be within two-tenths, you're usually happy at the test. But being the lead guy, if we can go back and hopefully add a tenth or two, we should be able to maintain what we had."
In his most recent restrictor-plate race, last fall at Talladega where he substituted for the injured Tony Stewart, Dillon was third at the white flag before being involved in a final-lap crash. No wonder, then, the 23-year-old Sprint Cup rookie allows himself to think about winning the Daytona 500 -- a victory that would mean so much not just to Dillon and Childress, but also likely to many who once cheered for Earnhardt.
"I definitely do. All the speedway races, I circle all of them," he said. "Daytona, Talladega, I feel like I want to win them. I'm not going out there to just ride. It's my rookie season, I can go try stuff. It's like running that race for Tony last year when I went to Talladega, I had nothing to lose, and I ran probably the best I've ever run on a speedway, and was up front all day and had a blast. That's how I'm going to approach the speedway races, and trying to win them."
His Daytona hopes aside, Dillon is realistic about the transition to the Sprint Cup level, which he knows poses a challenge. The move from Nationwide to Sprint Cup, he said, is much greater than that from Truck Series to Nationwide, where the vehicles are more similar. But the elimination of ride height in the 2014 rules package helps the front end of the Sprint Cup car feel more like that from the Nationwide tour, which could both help his progress and place him on more level footing with more experienced drivers getting accustomed to the change.
At every level in which he's driven, Dillon said he's reached a point where he's grown comfortable in the vehicle, and then been able to get the most out of it. In the Nationwide Series, that happened near the end of his first season, and he knew he'd have a shot at the championship the next year. Now it's a matter of getting to that same point, only at the highest level of NASCAR.
"I'm very optimistic. I feel like we have a great team built around me, a great pit crew," he said. "Personally, I want to get in there and get some experience. I know every level I've moved up through, there's a time when you hit a level where you're like, 'Man, I'm comfortable now.' I want to get to that point. I want to get to where I know I'm driving the car to the best of its ability, to its max, and I can get to that next level for me. I did it in Nationwide cars -- in the second year, I was like, OK, I can do things in this car that I couldn't do in the first year. Same with Trucks. Now I get in a truck, and I have enough confidence and ability in where the edge is, and I can get to that next level. I want to get to that in the Cup Series. I know it's going to take a little bit longer, but I want to start working on it now."
Toward that end, Dillon is bound for a test in Nashville on Wednesday and Thursday. But soon enough he'll be back in Daytona, climbing into the No. 3 to prepare for the Great American Race, which Earnhardt didn't win until his 20th attempt. He has an idea of what the scene will be like.
"It will be a camera-flashing moment for sure," Dillon said. "I was in the test and got in the car, and there were like 20 cameras around me. It was pretty wild. You just try to block all that out, just try to get in your own zone. I try to go into my own world. I'm pretty good at it. My mom has always told me, I could block anybody out I wanted to. She seems to think I'm good at that, and I have selective hearing. I'm pretty good at selective hearing. When I get focused at something, it's pretty easy for me to block everything out."
Having his dirt modified down in Florida certainly won't hurt. But the idea of winning the Daytona 500 -- that race, in that car -- well, the feat just might get Dillon on another cereal box.
"Oh, man, it would be amazing," he said. "I feel like we've got every opportunity to do it. It's about staying focused all the way to that last lap, which has bitten me a few times. I think I've led three white-flag laps in the Nationwide race, was in third at Talladega in the Cup car. So the white flag is the one we've got to get by. We get by it, I think we'll have a great shot."
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