DOVER, Del. – Exchanging hugs with team members, Austin Dillon pumped a fist skyward and shouted what could be the mantra for his No. 3 Chevrolet.
“That’s all we want – another shot!” Dillon exclaimed. “Next round, baby!”
The Richard Childress Racing driver was the surprise qualifier for the Round of 12 in Sunday’s Citizen Solider 400 cutoff race, but the biggest surprise might have been how Dillon advanced in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
He finished eighth – his first top 10 in seven starts at the 1-mile oval where his previous best was 20th – and emphatically proved his championship bid was deserving of continuing after a 400-mile race in which several title rivals faltered.
The former Xfinity and Craftsman Truck series champion, who hadn’t finished higher than 20th in the points during his first two seasons in Sprint Cup, said it simply ranked as the biggest moment of his career.
“It’s amazing,” said Dillon , who had entered the race five points out of the final transfer spot. “It’s huge for RCR. I want to keep upsetting these guys, man.
“There’s a lot of guys in this that don’t think that we should be here, and I’m proud to be that car that’s here.”
Dillon wrapped up the final transfer spot by comfortably finishing 11 points ahead of Tony Stewart, whose final shot at a championship ended with a nondescript 13th.
Dillon’s two biggest threats for advancement seemed to be Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, but the Chip Ganassi Racing Chevys both were out of contention before the midpoint. Larson, who had a five-point cushion on McMurray and Dillon entering the race, had a loss of power and hit the wall in a 25th-place finish. McMurray finished last with an engine failure.
Even if they’d been at full strength, though, Dillon still would have been a threat with a car that he said was good enough to finish in the top five. After a mediocre practices Friday and Saturday, his car “came to life in the race” – particularly after the second pit stop.
“That’s when we really made it all up,” he said. “We made the Chase through that run.”
It was a major turnaround from last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Dillon crashed his primary car, stated in a backup and flirted with a disastrous finish until rallying for 16th and setting up his impressive performance at Dover.
“We just stayed focused, and once again, God just blessed us because I’m still awestruck,” he said. “Things like this just don’t happen. I’m proud to be going on to the final 12 and having race cars that are capable of keep on moving on.”
It’ll get much tougher from here. Dillon will be an overwhelming underdog battling for one of eight spots in the next round against Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.
It’s a formidable list.
But for Dillon, it’s another shot — and it’ll begin at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which Dillon says his is best track on the circuit.
“I’ve got three really solid tracks coming up,” he said of Charlotte, Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superpseedway (where he finished third in May). “I’m going to drive the wheels off it and have fun while we’re here.”