Momentum and Confidence Surge for Austin Dillon after Consecutive Top-5s
Austin Dillon was a perceived long shot to advance into the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, much less contend for a championship, but back-to-back top-5s have validated what everyone at Richard Childress Racing believed to be true.
The No. 3 could be so much more than what they’ve shown all season.
Not even a pit road speeding penalty could derail their best overall performance of the season on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway. Dillon earned a fourth-place finish and recorded consecutive top-fives for the first time in his career.
He also set a new career high in laps led, 55, while also finishing second and third in the first two stages.
The pit road speeding penalty was served alongside first stage winner Denny Hamlin, but Dillon immediately gapped the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11, and raced his way back inside the top-10 where he remained throughout the remainder of the race.
It left him wondering what could have been.
“I wish I wouldn’t have had the speeding penalty, but we overcame that,” Dillon said. “I’m not really worried about that. We overcame the speeding penalty. I should’ve been a little more patient getting to pit road.
“What a night for our team. I’ve been pretty confident. This team all year and now it’s starting to show more and more just because we’re getting finishes.”
Dillon boasts an impressive resume, but his wins in the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and earlier this season at Texas Motor Speedway are often accompanied by an asterisk.
The Daytona 500 win came after contact with Aric Almirola on the final lap. The Coca-Cola 600 victory came on fuel mileage. His win at Texas was the result of a well-timed caution, a pit road decision, and a byproduct of the high downforce rules package.
Even his Xfinity Series championship came via a winless season, so this run was arguably the biggest of his career, the resume notwithstanding.
“We’ve steadily gotten our stuff better and we’ve got a really good group working hard,” Dillon said. “RCR has all-hands on deck. ECR Engines. I’ve had confidence in myself my entire career. I’ve been through some ups and downs and weathered the storm to this point.
“I’ve always felt that when I’m given something to work with, I can work with it and make it happen.
“It’s a little surprising, but it’s been great to have fast race cars. But for me, when given this opportunity, I felt we could step up, and we have.”
Saturday was the most laps the Childress No. 3 has led in a Cup race since Dale Earnhardt led 58 laps at Charlotte in 2000. More telling of Dillon’s personal development, he says he hated coming to Richmond until recently.
“Richmond used to be my least favorite track of every racetrack in our circuit,” Dillon said. “I hated it. I couldn’t do it good in it. I led some laps here, one race in Xfinity, and I still fell back by the end of the race.
“I literally hated this place and now it is my favorite. I circle it.”
In addition to the speeding penalty, Dillon missed pit road on Lap 335 — losing several seconds as he got back on the throttle and pitted the following lap.
He overcame that, too.
“The biggest thing is when we came to pit road for our second green-flag stop in Stage 3, we were trying to bring everybody down,” Dillon said. “The No. 1 car (of Kurt Busch) was in my mirror on (fresher) tires. I overdrove that entry just a little bit thinking that I needed to avoid getting rear-ended, and then it was like ‘Oh no, I’m going to hit the red (commitment line) box’ so I had to make another lap around the track. That cost us three seconds.”
That might have been the difference between fourth and second.
Regardless, Dillon leaves Richmond with a 36-point advantage above the elimination cutoff. He should advance next Saturday night simply by virtue of finishing inside the top-15 in the Bristol Night Race.
“I truly believe in momentum and I believe in what we got going on,” Dillon said. “I’ve already had text messages from a lot of people that said ‘man, they’re finally talking about you.’ It’s cool to see. We got a lot of love tonight.
“I love to see it and I hope we can keep giving them something to talk about. … The confidence is building … I feel like a lot of people know that we’re here right now. And even if I get knocked out, eventually the naysayers are going to say, ‘See, I told you so,’ so I’m not worried about all that.
“My confidence comes from within my group. I’m so proud of the team that I’ve got surrounded by around me.”
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