Austin Dillon is one race away from advancing in the playoffs, and further surprising those who expected him to be an afterthought in the postseason.
Dillon, of course, started the year with an upset win at the Daytona 500 on the final lap, wasting little time in punching his ticket to the playoffs for the third straight season. But once Daytona faded in the rearview mirror, so too did the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team until late in the regular season, when it appeared it might be starting to hit upon something: see Michigan, for example.
And now two races into the Round of 16, Dillon has done all the right things to position himself for a spot in the Round of 12. He survived the chaos of Las Vegas for an 11th-place finish, and Saturday night had a solid run in Richmond with points in Stage 2 and finishing sixth overall.
Taking his Daytona win out of the equation, Dillon’s results at Vegas and Richmond now give him five finishes of 11th or better this season. It wasn’t surprising to see quite a few folks approach Dillon after the checkered flag last weekend, eager to know how about the turnaround.
“I think it’s just heart and momentum,” Dillon said. “We worked hard. Going back to Michigan, we feel like we got our Camaro ZL1 a little bit better there, and we were pretty good. We’ve carried that speed to a couple of tracks, and just haven’t got the finishes.”
On the surface, Dillon has done everything he needs to in the first two weeks, but he admits the team stubbed its toe in Las Vegas. As fellow playoff contenders encountered trouble, Dillon and his team worked themselves further up the leaderboard, eventually running inside the top 10. After he finished 11th though, Dillon was “really hard” on his pit crew for losing spots that could have kept them near the front. A change was made going into Richmond.
“And it paid off, we gained two spots,” Dillon said. “They were stellar. When you put it all together… it’s so tight out here, I mean, you’re looking at half a tenth is a lot of spaces, and on restarts getting positioned correctly is key. So pit stops matter.
“Our pit stops were good tonight, and they weren’t great last week, and we lost a couple of spots we probably could have had. Just proud of these guys. It’s heart, man, that’s what we do at RCR. We might not have everything, but we’ve got a big heart, and we’re going to work hard to do it.”
Dillon, crew chief Justin Alexander and the rest of the self-described “Wolfpack” need to do that again this weekend. The Charlotte road course is the first elimination race of the playoffs, and Dillon has just a slim 10-point advantage on the cutoff line. Over two miles in length with 17 turns, the course features tight turns around the infield, the corners of the oval, and then chicanes on both the backstretch and frontstretch.
A winner on the Charlotte oval in last year’s Coca-Cola 600, Dillon knows that won’t translate to what he and his peers will be facing this weekend. But he’s looking for his heart to keep carrying him on in the playoffs.
“Score as many points as possible,” Dillon said of the approach. “Work hard and grind it out like we have at all these races. It’s a grind, man. We grind that out, I’ll feel way more comfortable going into the next three [races] because our cars have speed.
“This is definitely going to be the weakest spot for us, and I’m fine to admit that. Hopefully my heart will push us to the next one, and I know our pit crew and road crew will do a good job with the setup.”