Posted: Thu May 31, 2012 11:44AM; Updated: Fri June 1, 2012 8:36PM
Cory McCartney
Cory McCartney>RACING FAN

Austin Dillon emerging as racing's most intriguing young star

Story Highlights

Austin Dillon is one of Nationwide's most talented, intriguing up-and-coming stars

Once-hyped driver Joey Logano has failed to live up to expectations this season

Expect streaking Kyle Busch to take the Dover checkers for a third time Sunday

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Austin Dillon currently sits third in the points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler.
Austin Dillon currently sits third in the points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images/SI

The driver who may just be NASCAR's next big thing is unabashed about his choice of headgear.

"I think I'm going to bring some new style back into racing," Austin Dillon, 22, said of the cowboy hats that he's been wearing around the track. "I've always had a little bit of cowboy in me."

But it's a new cowboy style from an old soul. He idolizes John Wayne -- Dillon counts Rio Bravo, The Sons of Katie Elder and Rio Lobo among his favorite of "The Duke's" movies and boasts, "I could probably quote every line from half his movies." He owns a guitar signed by Merle Haggard, whose concert was the last one he attended.

"I'm a pretty simple person," the Lewisville, N.C., native said. "I'm pretty straightforward on things and I'm a black or white type of person."

The son of Richard Childress Racing general manager Mike Dillon and the grandson of that team's iconic patriarch, Dillon is in his first season in the Nationwide Series after winning the Trucks title in 2011. He's currently sitting third in the points behind last year's champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Sprint Cup veteran Elliott Sadler after finishing ninth or better in eight of 11 races. He also leads the series with 11 lead-lap finishes. To put it simply, as Dillon's personality would dictate: he's been a force.

"[I'm] really focused on taking notes and looking back on notes, trying to dot every 'i' and cross every 't,'" Dillon said. "Just when we get to a track, I want to be prepared to win a race."

The future of NASCAR is on full display in the Nationwide Series. It's a stable of talent that includes Dillon, Stenhouse, '11 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, Ryan Truex and Cole Whitt, all of whom are under 25.

"We're all very competitive out there in the Nationwide Series now and we just want it really bad," Dillon said. "I know that everybody wants it really bad, but I think we're just really focused on taking advantage of the opportunity that we have."

But it's Dillon who may be the most intriguing of that group of potential stars of tomorrow, and it's not just a matter of his talent and lineage, it's also in the way he's handled the pressures of a racing legacy.

One ad opens with a montage of Dillon's racing past, from go-karts to Legends, Late Models and the Trucks Series. A garage door is lifted, and Dillon's future in the Nationwide Series is unveiled, a black Chevrolet with a familiar number adorned on the side.

NASCAR fans are a protective bunch, though nowhere is that mindset more evident than when it involves Dale Earnhardt Sr. When Dillon, who has raced with the No. 3 throughout his career, brought the famed black car with that red-and-white numeral back to the track this season, he forfeited being simply another Nationwide driver.

"I think we all knew what we were going into," said Dillon, who can remember being in Victory Lane with Earnhardt when he won his first Daytona 500 in 1998. Dillon was seven at the time. "[We] just used it as fuel, the fuel doing whatever it takes to be competitive, using it as fuel to charge forward and never be satisfied, I guess ... just going each and every week and not being happy until we win races."

It's a level of expectations that maybe only one other young driver can understand, Dillon's brother Ty, 20, who is currently piloting the No. 3 in the Trucks Series and is sitting third in the points standings.

"We kind of compare notes, but we also let ourselves learn, just kind of let ourselves go and if one of us is struggling we're going to be the first one there for each other," Dillon said."

When Joey Logano arrived in the Cup series as an 18-year-old with a nickname, "Sliced Bread," heaped upon him by respected veteran Mark Martin, he was a can't-miss, up-and-coming star.

Four years later, the results haven't matched the hype. Logano has produced one win and 14 top-10s overall in 123 starts, along with zero Chase berths. Some have speculated that Logano, whose contract with Joe Gibbs Racing is up after this season, could wind up elsewhere.

But it was all a case of too much too soon. What Logano needed was time to develop, something he couldn't get while being thrust into NASCAR's big leagues as a teenager. Not surprisingly, Logano has been at his best in Nationwide, winning three of the nine races he's entered this season and has finished outside the top 10 just three times.

Just 22, it's hard to remember sometimes that Logano's career is just getting started. But when it comes to rushing prospects, he's the cautionary tale and Dillon seems content to bide his time and work his way up to Cup, using the lower series as what they were intended for: NASCAR's farm system.

"You just work hard and create this base in the Nationwide Series, followers and fans and move up to Cup when we're ready," Dillon said. "We want to be up in the Cup series, that's our goal and we're going to work hard to get there but we also want to create a good base in the Nationwide Series and win races."

Dillon made his debut last October in Kansas and is scheduled to run in two races this season and six or seven next year before moving full-time to Cup in 2014, which could coincide with the departure of RCR stalwart Jeff Burton, whose current deal ends at the end of that year.

"It's just whatever my grandfather feels like," Dillon said. "If he feels like it's a good position for us to be in and it's a good deal, we'll try it out. But he's not going to push us into something we don't want to do or push us too early if he doesn't think we're ready."

Dillon and his famous grandfather are in no rush. He's not going anywhere, and neither are those cowboy hats. Dillon has been in talks with Charlie 1 Horse -- the company outfits the likes of Kid Rock, Montgomery Gentry and racing's most famous wearer of such hats, Richard Petty -- which will keep the young driver supplied.

"I'm going to start wearing them whenever I can," he said.

Dover Prediction

Kyle Busch. Jimmie Johnson may be the king of the Monster Mile with a series-high six wins on the track, but over the last four races, nobody has been better than Busch. He owns a 4.25 average finish in that span, which includes a victory in the summer of '10 and no result worse than sixth. Factor in that it's been more than a month since he finished lower than fourth in any race, and Busch could well end his weekend with a third concrete golem.

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