Austin Dillon hoping his Rolex 24 debut on Daytona road course will raise NASCAR game

Sport

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Seeking to add some new accents to his NASCAR road-course game, Austin Dillon already felt accomplished before hitting the track for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut.

In his first videoconference to meet the members of the RWR Eurasia team that will field the No. 51 ORECA he will be racing this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, Dillon, 30, got a major taste of the international flavor of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series.

“The cool part about it, you’re working with guys from all over different countries,” Dillon told NBC Sports. “I’ve got one guy from England, one guy’s from New Zealand, or maybe Australia. There are a bunch of people from the Philippines that are working on the car.

“Just that aspect of bringing a whole diverse group together to try to win a 24-hour race is cool.”

There will be more than just a class victory on the line for the 2018 Daytona 500 winner, who will be teamed with NASCAR veteran Cody Ware, Porsche factory driver Sven Mueller of Germany and Salih Yoluc of Turkey.

Dillon missed the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Daytona International Speedway road course last August because of a positive COVID-19 test.

After NASCAR replaced the Fontana, California, race with Daytona on the 2021 schedule (bringing the number of road course races to seven, plus the exhibition Clash at Daytona next month), Dillon began lobbying his team “to figure out as many road-course races as we can, as many cars as we can get in” to prepare. His grandfather and NASCAR team owner Richard Childress helped broker the deal to put him Rick Ware’s car.

DIllon’s best finish on a road course in 15 Cup starts is 16th in 2018 at Sonoma Raceway, and he has an average finish of 19.0 at Sonoma, 27.0 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and 27.8 at Watkins Glen International.

“Road course racing is not anything I have a lot of experience in, so I’m doing my best to get better at it because NASCAR is going to more and more road courses, and it’s starting to get more comfortable,” Dillon said. “I think I can make strides there. It’s somewhere I’ve got to make strides, and I feel like it’s there if I get more experience.

“I’m pumped. I ran that simulator last week in the LMP2 car, and it was just totally different. We drive race cars, but those are race cars. Everything is built to go fast. Total downforce, maximum amount of breaking, power and paddle shifters. It’s a whole other level of into the future compared to where our Cup cars are. And it’s just nice to drive something like that. Non-stock.

Dillon and Cody Ware recently tested on a Dallara simulator in Indianapolis, and Dillon also got some sports-car experience in December by racing a Camaro (with Kaz Grala and Tyler Reddick) in a club-level race at Circuit of the Americas (which also will play host to the NASCAR Cup Series this year).

There were 90 cars in that race, which helped acclimate Dillon to dodging slower cars (spec Miatas in that instance). In the LMP2 at Daytona, Dillon will be in the second fastest of five classes and will be lapping GT cars often on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout.

Dillon slowly was getting up to speed, running several seconds off the top pace while making eight laps in practice last Friday and Saturday. The sports car “teaches a new thought process on braking” that involves a varying application of the brake pedal and timing of the turn that is much different than the Cup Series (an adjustment that Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson also are making).

“I think the ultimate goal is to be as fast and competitive as the other guys in the group,” Dillon said. “But they got me by a ton of experience. I’m going to work hard. In the simulator test, my speed was there pretty good, but I’ve got to back it up at track. My sim times were strong, but when you’re driving a car that’s worth a lot of money, you might creep up on that speed threshold for a little while.

“Those things are just impressive cars. So I don’t want to ruin it for everybody just trying to catch those guys when it comes to just a lap time.”

Dillon also will be running the Clash ahead of the Daytona 500 and has rented a house in the Daytona Beach because of a nearly monthlong residency in Central Florida.

“I’m going to be in a car a lot the next couple of weeks,” he said. “It’ll be wild.”