Seventy-two races was all it took for Austin Dillon to have his best performance in the Sprint Cup Series, but even then he admits he was taken to “school a few times” during his first significant exposure to the front of the pack.
Dillon finished Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 in fourth for his second career top-five finish. The first came in his 31st start, last year’s Coke Zero 400, during his rookie season for Richard Childress Racing.
While he’s seen success in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series, it wasn’t until Sunday’s race, which Dillon started from the rear due to an engine change, that Dillon led more than eight laps (19) and played a part in the drama of NASCAR’s top circuit.
“I felt like I’ve been able to prove that I can compete with these guys in the Xfinity Series and don’t know where it was in the Cup Series,” Dillon said. “We made some good changes and the finishes are starting to happen. From the Trucks and Xfinity, it takes a little while once you start having fast cars and running up front to learn how to race with these guys, and today was really good for me.”
One of the “good changes” Dillon attributed his career day to was the decision in June by Richard Childress to replace crew chief Gil Martin with Richard “Slugger” Labbe. Strategy by Labbe – not pitting during the competition caution – put Dillon in the lead early in the race. Dillon stayed there for 18 laps.
“I think we were probably the second‑strongest car and then we just didn’t adjust much,” Dillon said. “We haven’t run up there a lot, and it’s hard to change a car that’s capable of staying up there. So if I did it over again, I’d probably start freeing (it) up a little earlier. You know, his car was really good down the straightaway.”
On ensuing restarts, it would be Matt Kenseth, a 34-time Sprint Cup winner, who triumphed, leading a race-high 146 laps.
“I feel like I learned a lot,” Dillon said. “Matt took me to school a few times up front when I was slicing with him, and I’ll take that in the notebook and see if I can’t learn from it the next time up front.”
Dillon, averaging a finish of 21st this season, hopes his next visit to the front comes Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Through three races at Bristol, he has an average finish of 16.3.
“I just wish we could have started this just a little bit earlier, but we’ve got a couple good races left for us,” Dillon said. “Really looking forward to Bristol. We (were running) third there with four to go and ran out of fuel. So if we can go to Bristol and compete, I think we can win there. I’m definitely looking forward to that race.”
In that race, four-time champion Jeff Gordon will be sporting the “rainbow warriors” paint scheme, emulating the height of his 23-year career, which ends in November. That will close the chapter on a significant part of NASCAR history.
Dillon is still trying to establish the beginning of his and knows there’s more to it than one top-five finish.
“A lot of hard work is going to go into it,” Dillon said. “Jeff just didn’t get here from running up front. He worked hard to get there. I’ve got a lot of work to put in. This is not just a thing you get in a race car and go fast. You’ve got to put a lot of effort behind it, and I’ve learned that the last year and a half. Hard work and effort behind it and focus really helps you.
“I’ll do my best to do that. I’d love to fill a void there when Jeff leaves.”