BROOKLYN, Mich. – A break away from pouncing on his second victory of the season, it was Austin Dillon whose No. 3 Chevrolet suffered the break in Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.
Running second to Kevin Harvick with two laps remaining, the Richard Childress Racing driver picked up a vibration that cost him two spots but didn’t prevent him from scoring his second top five – and his first since winning the season-opening Daytona 500.
“We’re kind of one of the smaller teams out here, truthfully,” Dillon said. “I feel like I have one of the biggest hearts out here in this garage as a driver and can get it done when we put great cars on the track. So we put a great car on the track today, and I showed what we can do. Huge momentum; we want to carry it forward.”
Aside from two mediocre practice sessions, it was a strong weekend overall for Dillon, who qualified fifth. Though he drifted outside the top 10 in the first stage, Dillon finished fifth in the second stage and steadily climbed forward during the final 70 laps.
He led five laps after making his final stop behind Harvick’s under green, and he then hung onto second with a two-tire stop. He was a few seconds behind Harvick’s No. 4 Ford when trouble struck (which he speculated was a loose wheel or a tire unraveling), prompting an animated but joyful conversation with his grandfather and car owner Richard Childress in the pits.
“It was great; I wished he could have got that second,” Childress said. “All of a sudden, he just shot up the racetrack, and he pulled over and just let him go. Which was a smart thing. Better to do that than to hit the wall.”
The Daytona win locked Dillon into the playoffs 22 races ago, but the team’s recent struggles partly are because it’s been leveraging the guarantee of contending for the title against experimenting with unconventional setups.
“That’s what we’re working on right now,” Childress said. “Everything we’re doing. We just missed it a few times because of trying stuff for the playoffs.”
On Sunday, the team finally seemed to hit on it. Dillon proclaimed his car as a legitimate second fastest behind Harvick’s, and that he outran the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the second half was evidence of that.
“It was incredible to see those guys run good,” said Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick. “Those guys have worked really hard, and I think (Dillon) and (RCR teammate Ryan Newman) both had good speed. They had good motors. It’s cool to see the hard work pay off that those guys have done and hopefully they keep getting better.”
Said runner-up Brad Keselowski: “I was really impressed with how well Austin and Ryan Newman ran this weekend. Yeah, you’d be foolish to keep something great in your pocket. It’s time to bring it out and make sure it’s ready to go.
Crew chief Justin Alexander said Dillon’s team brought a new car for Michigan, which is often a proving ground for the 10-race stretch that determines the championship.
“It seems like when we’ve had fast cars, we’ve maybe not executed right,” he said. “We’ve executed good but had not as good of cars. Today we just put it all together.
“Speed like this, we’ll take that. We were able to run up front with them guys again, so it’s a breath of fresh air.”
Dillon notched only his fourth top 10 this season. He said he needs top-10 consistency to make a deep run for the championship, and Michigan might show he is hitting his stride at the right time.
“I think it just all came together,” he said. “This is one of my best tracks. We have been working hard. We had spurts of speed in qualifying at the last couple of big mile-and-a-half tracks.
“You should be able to keep that speed into practice and (the) race. We haven’t been able to do it, and today we did.”