Coming into 2016, Austin Dillon had put together two mediocre seasons after a ton of hype in the No. 3 car. This year, all that build up finally paid off with his first Chase berth.During those first two years, Dillon had just nine top-10 finishes and two top-five results. In this season alone, he’s compiled 11 top 10s and four top fives. He used that consistency to advance to the second round of the Chase with a top 10 at Dover last Sunday.Before racing at his home track in Charlotte on Sunday at noon on NBC, The North State Journal spoke to Dillon about his season, being a Panthers fan and being the lone driver from North Carolina remaining in the Chase.North State Journal: What has this season been like for you to this point?Austin Dillon: It’s been really good, man. A lot different from any other season I’ve been through to this point. Really enjoying going deep into the Chase. We’re in a great spot right now.NSJ: What changed from last season to flip the switch for this team?I’m not really sure what exactly flipped the switch, but we made changes during the middle of last year with [crew chief] Slugger [Labbe] coming on. We’ve shown speed and did a really good job of doing the things we should do. That’s finishing races and having speed in our cars and we’ve done all that at the right times.NSJ: How frustrating were the first two seasons for you?It was very frustrating the last two years, and it’s really rewarding to be in the position we’re in. I think that’s what builds you as a driver. I’m in a good spot going into this and learned how to take defeat a little bit. I feel confident in what we have going on this year and those two seasons prior to this prepared me for this moment.NSJ: Being the only driver from N.C. left, how important is it for you to keep that banner flying?It’s really special to me. There’s only a couple of us left with myself, Ty [Dillon], Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Blaney. With this area being the hub of NASCAR, you want to keep the N.C. drivers relevant. Getting a chance to do that on the Chase stage is important for our sport.NSJ: You’ve averaged a seventh-place finish in 2016 at the next three tracks. How good do you feel about your chances in the second round?I feel really good about my chances moving forward. This is the best round for my team and for us as a program. These are places where I’ve run really well at, so we’ve just got to go do our job and accomplish what we know we can do. Then bring that solid effort to the next round.NSJ: As a big Panthers fan, what are your thoughts on the season thus far?Ah man, it’s been nuts. Obviously not really pretty so far, but I have faith. It’s a new group of defensive backs and the offensive line has had their struggles. But I have faith in [Ron] Rivera and [Dave] Gettleman that they have a plan in mind to turn things around.NSJ: I know Graham Gano gave you his Super Bowl cleats earlier this year at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Where do you have them now?Oh yeah, they are in my house right now! I don’t have a shadow box for them yet, but I will. That’s some of the coolest memorabilia I have. It was really cool of him to give me those. I’m really proud of them.NSJ: How has your mentality changed from the regular season to the Chase?Well, our goal all season was to get into the Chase. Now it’s simply to win a championship. The main goal is to make it as far as we can in the Chase. Heading into the second round, we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to accomplish everything we set out to do this season.If you look at the names in the top 12, most people wouldn’t predict us moving on. I like that. I have confidence that we’re going to. I want to upset all those big names and keep going through.NSJ: Are you the underdog in the Chase at this point?Well, we have the least odds in Vegas right now, I just heard that. I don’t know. I think so. I like this role because it puts the pressure on the guys that I guess are projected to make it to the next round, whatever projections mean. Because in racing I’ve learned real quick that it’s not like any other sport, I guess, because You just never know what can happen in a race and you never know what the outcomes, there is so much that goes into every little piece and part of these cars.NSJ: Are people overlooking your team?I hope they are. [Laughs] I really hope they are.NSJ: What do you think it meant to Richard Childress Racing for you to advance?I think it definitely was uplifting for RCR in general. I had multiple guys come up to me in the shop this week telling me how proud they were and proud to be a part of RCR. They feel like we are doing a good job of putting the effort behind everything right now and really taking advantage of this opportunity that we have. It’s a great opportunity. Right now we are tied for first in the points. We haven’t been there all year long and this is just a great opportunity for the whole company in general.NSJ: Is there any added pressure for you as the only RCR driver remaining in the postseason?Well, [Ryan] Newman was able to do it a couple of years ago by himself and get all the way to Homestead and finish second in points. That was impressive. So RCR obviously knows how to do it with one car, and they’ve given me a lot of support from all the teams. I hope we can back it up and get to Homestead with a shot.
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