By: Ashley McCubbin
While all of his competition in the NASCAR Cup Series was able to get laps around the Daytona International Speedway road course last year, Austin Dillon missed the event as a result of a positive COVID-19 test.
It’s why he searched for an opportunity to run the 24 Hours of Daytona to gain experience, and was able to partner with Rick Ware Racing Eurasia to drive the No. 51 in the LMP2 class alongside Cody Ware, Salih Yoluc, and Sven Muller.
It has helped him, as he has figured out the biggest challenge of the course surround the bus stop, and the exit off turn six.
“Leaving there with a good pace is huge, and then just the balance of how hard you want to go into the bus stop,” he told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I kept creeping up on the bus stop and as I was saying, you can’t quite see it. So I came up on the ‘one sign’ and then hit the brakes and I was way too late, and then I tried to turn the wheel, which is a big no-no; hitting the brakes and turning on any road course, you don’t want to do those things at the same times.
“I ended up having to bail and go through the grass. So I learned my lesson pretty quick with where my eyes were at as I needed to learn a lot. But I think by the end of practice, I was pretty good.”
Aside from just getting track time to get used to the course, Dillon feels this experience will be beneficial in helping to “slow things down” once he returns to the Cup Series car next month. He related it to when he felt crate late models were difficult, then was able to easily get the hang of it after experience in a super late model with 850 horsepower underneath him.
“I think the biggest thing is it’s a road course car and it’s at a faster pace than what our Cup cars do, but I still feel I can take everything and just being out there with cars in general,” he added. “I haven’t raced any road course cars and seeing how aggressive you can be just seeing the different driving styles, I know why some of my competitors in the Cup Series are good at Cup racing as when you get out of these, it changes the game a little bit. I’m hoping the ability to switch it up, get in a different car, and come back to the Cup Series will sharpen my road course skills.”
He feels it has already helped him, as noted when he got back in the Cup Series simulator earlier this week and was able to get up to speed quicker than normal.
“It usually takes me a couple hours to get accumulated to the Cup car and find speed, and this time I was able to find speed a lot faster,” he explained. “I think I can equate it to just the raw speed and quickness in what’s happening. I think Jimmie said it best in that it just slows it down. It’s been nice to jump in something different, and it definitely slows it down.”
Beyond the simple experience at the controls, Dillon feels there can be knowledge gained in seeing how the track changes as it continues to take on more rubber. All the benefits combined together is also why he is electing to bring his engineer in that helps him with simulator and works on driving style so they can “work together and hopefully cut time off every lap that we’re out there.”
The thoughts of experience being beneficial have been echoed by others throughout the weekend, with Chase Elliott saying anytime you are behind the wheel, whether a midget at the Chili Bowl or the Rolex 24, you are learning something.
Juan Pablo Montoya backed up those sentiments, sighting a couple things they will leave Daytona with on their resume.
“For the road course experience, I think they’re going to get a lot of experience with tire loading, and really using the brakes,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “These cars are extremely good under breaking, and that makes a huge difference as compared to the Cup car, those braking zones are extremely long. I think they’re going to learn a lot – learn the traffic and everything. 24 hours are pretty unique when you spend time in traffic and this year, they added LMP3 so it’s going to be even crazier in the way you catch them. Just being patient and smart about it will make a huge difference.”
A focus on his road course skills comes at a critical time with the 2021 schedule for the Cup Series featuring seven in total, including a pair of new events. Dillon feels he can become a front runner by simply gaining experience anyway possible.
“I think that’s why I’ve spent the off-season racing,” he commented. “I went to COTA and ran in the World Racing League. I thought that was positive being around other cars, different style cars – kind of like why I’m good at ovals as I’ve driven all different types of cars. I haven’t done anything on a road course, other than what was required to get to the Cup level, which is running the races in the series that I’ve ran. It’s nice to have taken a step back and run and learn more about racing. I’m having a blast doing it.”
Admittedly, it has not all gone perfectly well as his first laps on track in the LMP2 car did not go smoothly, as a result of wrong thumb placement on the wheel.
“I had my thumbs in the wrong spot on the steering wheel and got into a braking zone and actually hit the pit limiter,” he recalled. “It cut the engine right away, and I kind of panicked trying to find the button. Then I found it, hit it off, but then I’d hit the full course yellow, so it cut the engine again. So it was probably hilarious that the first session in the car, I had to make sure my thumbs were inside the steering wheel so I wasn’t hitting the buttons in the braking zone.
“Learning the steering wheel is part of the game that I’m not used to in NASCAR as we don’t have anything, just a push-to-talk. So it’s been fun learning that, and then the high speed of these cars, the grip level, and the physical strength that is needed with your neck; you’re in a body position in these cars as we sit more up-right in these cars.
“Oh, and I also didn’t – racing at night over here, and if you’ve seen the movie Ford vs. Ferrari and you look at how dark it looks on the movie, like the visual cues are very difficult, like you can’t see anything. It’s very dark out, you can see some things; I don’t know why the bus stop isn’t lit. But I only had one night session and had my smoke shield on; I think if I put the clear shield on, it might help a little bit.
“I’ve just been one step behind here trying to learn different things about doing things right, where in the Cup garage I know where everything is at. I’m getting closer and I think by Saturday, and the start of the 24, I should be in a good spot. I was really happy with the pace that I picked up through my run. The last laps of my session were my fastest, which I think there is room to improve and looking to see what 24 hours bring.”
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