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Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick aim to keep Richard Childress Racing rising

Dale Jr., Jeff Burton, and Dale Jarett reveal their top storylines for the NASCAR season, including Kyle Larson's return, new situations for Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace, Kyle Busch, and preview the Daytona 500.

Following a poor 2019 season that saw both of its drivers miss the playoffs and fail to win a race, there was only one way for Richard Childress Racing to go in 2020.

Austin Dillon capitalized on pit strategy and late restarts to win at Texas Motor Speedway in July, and when the postseason arrived, he defied expectations to advance into the second round.

His teammate Tyler Reddick - runner-up that day in Texas - did not make the playoffs but he was the most consistent performer of the Cup rookie class. He equaled Dillon with nine top-10 finishes.

Both drivers hope to build on those successes, starting at the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 14.

Both drivers also have clear areas where they must improve to make that happen.

A smoother road?

Since entering the Cup Series in 2014, Austin Dillon’s road course results have been middling.

He’s yet to record a top-10 finish in 15 Cup road course starts. His best results are a pair of 16th-place finishes, one at Watkins Glen International in 2014, the other at Sonoma Raceway in 2018.

Last season, he missed the inaugural Cup race on the road course at Daytona International Speedway after testing positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19). He finished 19th on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

With seven points-paying road course races on tap for this season (as well as Tuesday’s Busch Clash at Daytona road course), Dillon has sought to improve his skills over the offseason.

Last December, he, Reddick, and several NASCAR drivers took part in amateur-level endurance races at Circuit of the Americas (Austin, Tex.), which hosts its inaugural Cup race May 23.

Last weekend, he made his professional sports car debut in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, co-driving Rick Ware Racing and Eurasia Motorsport’s Ligier LMP2 prototype to a fourth-place finish in class.

“From the short time I’ve jumped in the simulator and gotten in and out of other cars, I’ve been able to pick up speed a bit quicker,” Dillon said Wednesday in a media teleconference. “I want to do more and more road racing. I’ve got millions of laps in a dirt car and millions of laps in an oval car, but not in road-course races. That comfort of being around other cars is being better. My confidence is higher.

“I can’t wait to race Tuesday night in the (Busch) Clash. That’ll be a fun one ... We’re taking it as a test session and are really focused on being aggressive with the adjustments on the car and how I drive in that race.”

After missing out last August, the Rolex 24 was Dillon’s first race on the Daytona road course, which he called “pretty self-explanatory” and “not so much of a technical track” as other road courses on the Cup schedule.

But for the Busch Clash and the second race of the Cup season on Feb. 21 - a week after the Daytona 500 - he’ll have one key difference to contend with.

“I haven’t gotten to run the new (NASCAR) chicane coming off Turn 4, so I need to make sure I try to stop when I get over there this time around from the Rolex to this race,” he said.

Crisis management

Along with leading the rookies performance-wise, Tyler Reddick closely matched his veteran teammate in 2020.

Reddick and Dillon not only had the same amount of top-10 finishes, but were near identical in other categories such as average running position during a race (Dillon: 16.5, Reddick: 17.2) and laps inside the top 15 (Dillon: 50.7%, Reddick: 49%).

More often than not, Reddick finished within the top half of the field. But to contend for a playoff berth in his sophomore Cup season, he’ll need top-20 days to become top-10 and top-15 days more often.

He believes the key is better managing the worst part of his races.

“Normally, that kind of occurred about midway through the race (last season),” Reddick said Wednesday. “Sometimes, we could recover from it and get back into running for a top 10, but a lot of times when we were in pretty good shape and on pace to run somewhere right outside the top 10 or top 15, that bad run (took) us so far back that it’s really hard to recover from it and get a good finish out of it.”

”... Each race, you’re going to have something that’s your biggest struggle. Just trying to get across that better, with a better head or maybe with a better strategy – whatever it might be, we’ve been looking at it and just trying to be more aware of that as an issue, how we can prepare better for it, how we can handle it better.”