'Overlooked' playoff driver Austin Dillon stars in Southern 500
Many would have placed Austin Dillon among the first four drivers eliminated in the opening round of the NASCAR postseason, but the Richard Childress Racing driver proved Sunday that he will not be so easily eliminated from the playoffs.
Dillon nearly ran down race winner Kevin Harvick in the closing laps and finished an impressive second in the first race of the 2020 playoffs, putting himself 10 points above the cut line.
The result was just his third top-five of the season, but it couldn't have come at a better time. He started the race from the rear of the field after a tire mix-up and gathered just three stage points before surging to the front in the final run of the night.
When Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. collided in the fight for the race lead, Dillon suddenly found himself with a real shot at the win as he closed in on Harvick. He came just 0.343s shy of Harvick at the finish after a impressive last-lap charge, placing higher than 14 of his 15 playoff rivals.
"I get overlooked some, probably more than most, I don't know why." said Dillon post-race. "I always feel like I perform pretty well in pressure situations, and RCR as a whole can step up. I have total belief in the No. 3 team and probably more belief this year than I've ever had because we've brought consistent speed to the track, and we might not have gotten every finish that we should have gotten this year but we've gotten a lot of good finishes. It's been one of my best years statistically and just the ability behind the cars are better."
It wasn't easy for RCR and Dillon Sunday at Darlington with the team mired deep in the pack early in the race.
"Man, we battled. This team, we've had a motto all year; it's been "FIDO," forget it and drive on, and that's what we kind showed that example tonight," explained Dillon.
"We just battled. We didn't take off very good the first 25 laps. (Crew chief) Justin Alexander made a great adjustment, kind of really went at it, freed up the car, and that next run we took off and I felt like we were pretty good. I had a punctured right rear and was able to catch it in the middle of that first stage. We short‑pitted because I had to because the right rear was going flat, and man, the good Lord blessed us tonight. Caught a lot of breaks, truthfully. When that right rear was going down, we caught it. Went back out, gained a lot of track position because we were on good tires, and the caution fell for us in a good spot.
"Took back off and just kind of got messed up on that restart, lost a little bit, and then was able to just steadily work our way back to the front all night long and then get inside that top 10. Had some great pit stops from our 3 team. The American Ethanol Chevy was really good when we kind of got to a point why I didn't really know what to do to it other than to just slowly tighten it up, and I wish I would have made just a little bit more of an adjustment. You could tell my last corner I had burned the right rear off of it trying to get there, and that's kind of where we were. We were just a little free. We had corded a right rear earlier in the race.
Dillon is no stranger to the crown jewels of NASCAR, having scored his first Cup win in the 2017 Coca Cola 600 -- the sport's longest race. In 2018, he emerged victorious in the Daytona 500.
"We've been working hard," he added. "We worked hard in the sim this week to make the car take off better. It's an older setup that we've run here a long time, and we just adjusted it, tweaked it a little bit to take off a little better, and that's what we've wanted, and it did, and that helped us keep our track position and ultimately gave us a shot at a Southern 500. So close to one of the crown jewels again. I like winning those things."
The NASCAR Cup Series now heads to Richmond Raceway before closing out Round 1 of the playoffs at Bristol Motor Speedway.
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