Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon have second-best races of year with Southern 500 top fives

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – In the Southern 500, the 25th race in a very long season, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon had their best nights of the year.

That’s saying a lot about the seasons of Busch, who won the Daytona 500, and Dillon, who won the Coke 600, two of NASCAR’s other three crown jewels.

Both finished in the top five of Sunday night’s race, with Busch placing third ahead of Dillon.

Busch led seven laps, his most this season, following a round of green-flag pit stops in the middle of the final stage before being overran by Martin Truex Jr. with 42 laps left.

“I was hoping for one more yellow,” Busch said. “If there was a yellow with 30 to go, we were a really good car on short-run speed and that was the longest run at the end. Those guys caught us on their fresher tires. But to just to be in a position to win the Southern 500 is great. Didn’t quite get the job done, but third is really nice for a big, marquee race.”

In Busch’s 21st Darlington start, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned his third top five. It was his first since 2010 when he was with Team Penske.

It was also just his third top five since he won the Daytona 500 after his No. 41 Ford survived a wave of leaders dropping off with empty fuel tanks.

“We’re chipping away at it,” Busch said. “The Daytona 500 win was great, but it seemed like it put us behind for a while. But honestly, the balance in the Ford, that’s what we’ve been working on and now we’re finding things we change on the car and it hooks up the front and the rear at the same time. We haven’t been hooking up the front, unhooking the rear and vice versa. So it feels we’re finding the balance on our Ford that way.”

Sunday’s finish was also his second top five in a row after a late surge two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway to place fifth.

The results come in the month since it was announced SHR was not picking up his option for 2018.

Though he’s safely locked into the playoffs, Busch said his team was already in postseason mode.

“We’ve had a couple good runs, but, still, we’ve got 11 weeks ahead of us,” Busch said. “We treated this whole weekend like it was the playoffs. Richmond will be the same thing next week.”

While Busch prayed for a late caution, Dillon was giving grace for the race staying green for the final 101 laps.

Dillon enjoyed his best night since gambling on fuel to win the Coke 600 in May for his first Cup win.

On Sunday, Dillon gambled instead on tires over the last stretch of the race.

“We thought our car was really good on long runs, that’s (why we made the decision) to stay out there and it’s kind of scary because (you might) have a flat tire or you just run out of tire,” Dillon said. “I was good enough to save tires. I like long runs, always been a long-run kind of driver. Short runs, I’ve been working hard to get better at. Glad it went long there at the end.”

While it gave him his third top five of the year, it was his first in 13 races. But it was also just his fourth top 10.

By this point last year the Richard Childress Racing driver had 10 of the 13 top-10 finishes he would earn.

“We’re never giving up, and RCR is working hard,” Dillon said. “We were down pretty bad. That race at Charlotte, after that we’ve got a slump. Just a lot of hard work going on at the shop knowing we’ve got to get better. It feels pretty good to have run like this.”

Dillon put together his race in a paint scheme and firesuit honoring Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 win in the Southern 500.

“I’ll tell you what, this is one (firesuit) I’ll probably want to keep, man,” Dillon said. “To bring out this Dale Earnhardt car, it means so much to so many. I’m glad we represented it well. This is a pretty hot firesuit, I must admit it. I love it. I might get Dale Jr .to sign it and put it up.”