Why Austin Dillon Should Put His Rough 2014 Daytona 500 in the Past

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2014

Aric Almirola (43), Austin Dillon (3) and Danica Patrick (10) collide on the front stretch during the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Austin Dillon didn't exactly have the dream day he wanted in last Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.

Sure, he sat on the pole and brought back the legendary No. 3 to Sprint Cup competition, but Dillon didn't have nearly as good a finish at the end of the race as he did at its start.

Dillon was involved in at least two big wrecks, yet still seemed to muster on and finished a respectable ninth.

It wasn't the win he wanted, but it certainly was a lot better finish than numerous drivers who have a greater deal more experience in NASCAR's marquee series.

How Dillon finished ninth after being part of two wrecks, including one that he helped cause, is beyond me. But give Dillon credit for salvaging a decent finish in an otherwise trying day.

Now all the pressure of Daytona is behind him and he moves forward, starting with Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway.

There's no question Dillon learned more than a few lessons in the 500. And hopefully fans that watched him do what he did will cut him a break and realize one very important thing: He's only a rookie in the Sprint Cup series—and rookies are going to make mistakes, plain and simple.

Dillon is likely to make many more mistakes through the course of this season. He won't go from less than perfect at Daytona to spotless in the remaining 35 Cup races.

When it was first announced that Dillon would race the No. 3 in the Cup series, he carried that weight on his shoulders for several months—during the offseason, leading up to Speedweeks and ultimately in the Great American Race—yet handled virtually everything with near-perfect aplomb.

He was respectful of the man whose number he was bringing back, namely, the late Dale Earnhardt. To his credit, Dillon didn't brag or say he was going to replace The Intimidator.

Rather, he was merely trying to write the next chapter in the illustrious history of the No. 3.

And he started out fairly well, even with the two wrecks he was involved in.

I hoped fans would cut Dillon some slack and give him a break, and for the most part they did just that. There were very few boos before, during or after the 500.

If anything, fans probably wanted to get all the pre-500 hype over as much as Dillon, so that everyone could get back to racing and cheering for Dillon or their favorite driver.

The biggest thing Dillon can do for himself is not to lose confidence or faith in his ability. He's going to make a lot more rookie mistakes; that's a given.

He's also going to have some great races. With his kind of talent, he can't help but do well in 2014.

Surprisingly—and I don't know if it was because it was so late due to the nearly 6 ½-hour rain delay or what—but criticism of Dillon and the two wrecks he was involved in was extremely subdued.

There was little media bashing, and even fans on social media seemed fairly reserved. At any other time and with any other driver, fans may not have been so kind in their comments.

Maybe it's that fans really like Dillon. After all, he has a very respectable and reserved demeanor that doesn't appear to be an act. While he's a tough competitor, he's not in-your-face like Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski.

And that could very well be Dillon's calling card going forward. Even though he likes to wear a black cowboy hat, there's little negative symbolism attached to it. Heck, Richard Petty wears black Charley One Horse cowboy hats from time to time and no one thinks of him as a villain.

Dillon could very easily become the antithesis to Kyle Busch, the anti-Kyle if you will.

Even though he was born into a privileged family that just happens to have a grandfather who owns one of the best Sprint Cup teams in the business, Dillon does not drive like he has a silver spoon in his mouth.

Everything he's done thus far in his career, including his championships in the Camping World Trucks Series and last year's Nationwide Series title, were earned. Sure, he had some great equipment from pop pop's (his nickname for his grandfather) racing organization.

But even with great equipment, a driver is ultimately only as good as his talent level.

And while Dillon's talent level was less than ideal in the 500, that doesn't mean it will be the same way for the rest of the season.

He's human, he's fallible and he'll make mistakes. But along the way, he's going to develop into a pretty darn good driver.

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