For Austin Dillon, it all begins with where he starts -- whether that's his performance this season in NASCAR Nationwide Series races, or his transition to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit next year.
The Richard Childress Racing driver is coming off a runner-up performance Sunday at Iowa Speedway in which he led 207 laps before being passed late in the event by winner Trevor Bayne. As usual, the effort for Dillon began with qualifying, where he claimed a third consecutive pole position that improved his series-best starting position to 4.2.
Three straight poles place Dillon in a six-way tie for the Nationwide record, along with Bayne, Sam Ard, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip. Although the overall NASCAR national-series mark may still be a ways off -- that one belongs to Mike Skinner, who scored eight straight on the Camping World Truck Series in 1995 -- Dillon still has a chance to take ownership of the Nationwide record this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, where he won a pole last year.
"We're going to a track where I'm very capable of setting the car on the pole," Dillon said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. His previous three poles have come at Charlotte, Dover, and Iowa, showing off flat-out speed that's been one of Dillon's strengths since his days racing on dirt.
"I feel like qualifying has always been something, it just comes to me naturally from dirt racing," he said. "I've sat on a lot of poles in dirt cars. One of my favorite things to look back on is, I set the pole for the World 100, one of the toughest dirt races out there, at Eldora. And qualifying has just been something that, I feel like getting in the car I can go out there and hold it wide open for a lap or be in the gas for the longest ?. That's been pretty simple for me, but right now it's just making sure that we can do that throughout a run, and be fast over a long period of time."
None of Dillon's poles have yet translated into victories -- his runner-up result at Iowa was his best in a season that sees him fourth in points, 46 behind leader Regan Smith. But that early-race track position is still important, particularly in Nationwide events that are typically shorter, and often feature an assortment of moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers mixed in.
"In a shorter race like the Nationwide Series races, you don't have the opportunity to make many adjustments to your car," he said. "So starting up front, and also having the No. 1 pit stall, is huge. Getting that early pick for a clean pit stall in and out makes your day a lot easier when you don't have to deal with multiple cars around you when you come down pit road."
Those things may prove even more important next year, when the 23-year-old Dillon is expected to move up to RCR's Sprint Cup program. This weekend he's also running the Sprint Cup race at Michigan, in a No. 33 car that will have Shane Wilson as crew chief. It will be the fifth premier-series start this season for Dillon, who has made three of those in James Finch's No. 51 car, all of it with an eye toward gaining experience and knowledge for next year.
"Experience is huge, and running the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, you don't ever get that horsepower that you get when you get in those Cup cars," said Dillon, the 2011 Truck Series champion, and a two-time winner on the Nationwide tour. The purpose of that experience is to give him something to build on when he moves into the premier series as a rookie in 2014.
"I think most of all in these races we have this year, (the goal) is to run all the laps. It's very important to gain experience throughout a full run," Dillon said. "You go through lots of changes in a Cup race where you have many pit stops and changes, so the cars change a lot more over a long run. Just keeping up with those and making sure we don't get out early in these Cup races, where we can't use that experience to help us for next year. That's really big, to finish these races and get that experience so you have a little bit of a notebook going into next year."
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