Austin Dillon wasn’t mentioned by anyone as a sleeper in this years playoffs. I picked him to make the Round of 12, but I didn’t think that he’d be making the noise that he has thus far.
The Richard Childress Racing driver wasted no time backing up his runner-up finish at Darlington Raceway to open the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. A fourth-place finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway — his first-ever run of back-to-back top-five finishes at the Cup level — have catapulted Dillon into a strong spot heading into the Round of 16 finale at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Dillon now sits at a +36 position on the cutline and a sixth-place spot in the standings — knocking on the door of playoff advancement with one race to go in the Round of 16. He is also only one of two drivers — Joey Logano is the other — with back-to-back top fives to open the playoffs.
“I felt that our team has turned the corner the last couple weeks and I felt like RCR as a whole has had speed all year,” Dillon said. “Between myself, Justin (Alexander, crew chief), my engineer Billy Scott, spotter Brandon (Benesch) and everybody at the shop — our mechanics — we got a really good team. We’ve shown a lot of speed this year and didn’t get some of the finishes that we deserved.”
Dillon noted he had circled Richmond coming into the playoffs as a track where his crew could win, given his two top-six finishes in the previous three races there. He also noted driving up through the field “four times” into the top five at Martinsville Speedway in June before the car overheated.
Dillon parlayed two second-place stage finishes into 18 stage points to grow his cushion to the cutline, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked on the points sheet. The 30-year-old had to overcome a speeding penalty after Stage 1 but rallied to get his track position back. The speeding penalty was the sixth of the season on pit road for Dillon, according to the NBCSN telecast. He later missed getting to pit road on Lap 336 while running sixth in a strategy play to bring everyone with him for fresh Goodyear tires.
“I wish I wouldn‘t have had the speeding penalty but we overcame that,” Dillon said. “I should have been a little more patient trying to get to pit road there to drag everybody down and it cost us a little bit of time. Either way, what a night for our team. I‘ve been pretty confident in this team all year and now it’s starting to show more and more because we are getting finishes.”
The race marked a career-best laps led in one race by Dillon — 55 — who first passed polesitter Kevin Harvick for the lead on Lap 21 and led late in Stage 2 before passed by eventual race winner Brad Keselowski with 18 to go in the stage.
Those finishes are catching the attention of his competitors. Martin Truex Jr., the runner-up at Richmond, noted the No. 3 car has “taken a big step forward, so that’s cool to see.”
This is a big moment for Dillon, a seven-year veteran of the Cup Series. While he has three Cup wins and has qualified for the playoffs four times (counting this season), he has only advanced out of the Round of 16 once.
“I feel like I‘ve matured as a driver,” Dillon said. “I‘m in that age zone where things start clicking a little bit. You notice these guys when they get a little older in age that stuff starts coming to them really well and some people do it faster than others, but it’s a good time right now for me and the 3 team and everybody at RCR.
“We want to keep seizing the moment. We get these opportunities to start up front, collect as much as we can. I‘m not disappointed. Unbelievable top fives back to back, but that car was pretty impressive. Definitely could have finished second and had a shot at Brad (Keselowski) I feel like. We weren‘t that great on a short run, but long-run speed I don‘t think anybody had much for us.”