For the third time in his Sprint Cup career, things fell the right way for Austin Dillon.
After a bad pit stop and a speeding penalty on Lap 150, bold strategy and the right amount of cautions at just the right moment ensured Dillon the opportunity to earn the third top-five finish of his three-year career.
Dillon started fifth in the Kobalt 400, and that’s where he would find himself at the end of the 267-lap race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“We killed ourselves,” said Dillon, who berated his crew over the radio following an early mistake on pit road. “The cautions fell right. We really have to pick it up as a group, me included, on pit road. It was disappointing because we had such a fast race car. At one point in time we were way faster than the leader. We just put ourselves behind. But, we had a shot there at the end and if we were good enough to win, we would have done it.’
Dillon’s team, as did those of race winner Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, made the decision to stay on the track when the rest of the leaders pitted on Lap 218. None of the three that stayed out could have made it to the finish without pitting unless there were conveniently timed cautions.
The one they needed came on Lap 226 thanks to a four-car accident in Turns 1 and 2 as Dillon attempted to fend off the advances of Jimmie Johnson, who led a race-high 76 laps.
Just before the final restart on Lap 233, Dillon was told over his radio, “I know you’ve been waiting all day to get up on the wheel and drive hard. Here’s your chance.”
While Johnson and Kyle Busch eventually got by the No. 3, the Richard Childress driver stayed in the top five for the last 35-lap run. When it was over, Dillon had his first top-five finish since placing fourth in the second Michigan race last August.
With one top five in each of his three seasons, this is the earliest he’s earned one. Dillon’s first top five came in the July Daytona race in 2014.
“Things fell our way there for sure,” Dillon said. “What a fast race car, we were running some lap times faster than the leader at one point in the middle of the race when we were laps down that we were really proud of. I wish the wind wouldn’t have been so bad. I think it would have been an even better day for us … I think you will see us in victory lane before the season is over.”
Through three races, Dillon has two top-10 finishes and has yet to finish worse than 11th. He is now 10th in the point standings heading to Phoenix International Speedway — where Dillon has never finished better than 15th in four starts.