Austin Dillon has hill to climb in playoffs

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Austin Dillon did not have to wait long to punch his ticket into the Cup Series playoffs.

He just had to punch Aric Almirola‘s car out of his way on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

It’s been 25 races since the Richard Childress Racing driver won in Daytona, claiming his second-career victory.

But Dillon, in his fourth full-time season Cup, is not going into the first round of the playoffs with anything resembling momentum.

Ahead of Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Dillon has only two top 10s since the July race at Daytona. His peak came four races ago at Michigan, when he drove to a fourth-place finish, his first top five since the Daytona 500.

Dillon ended the regular season with a 22nd-place finish, tying his second worst result since the July Daytona race.

“I will take the dark horse role,” Dillon said Thursday at the Playoff Media Day. “Anything can happen. We show up at times and people least expect it.”

Dillon heads to Las Vegas, where he has one top five and top 10 (fifth in 2016) in six starts.

“It’s a good race track for me in the past,” Dillon said. “We’ve brought some speed to the race track as of late. That’s important. I’ll always enjoy the start of the playoffs. Everybody’s tense. Mistakes are made early and if you don’t make mistakes you probably move on to the first round.”

Here’s how Dillon’s numbers compare to his fellow playoff competitors.

Laps Spent in Top 15

Through 26 races Dillon has completed 6,986 out of a possible 7,189. Of those, Dillon ran in the top 15 for just 2,668 laps, or 37.1 percent.

That ranks 22nd overall and the lowest among the 16 playoff drivers. Six drivers who did not make the playoffs, including teammate Ryan Newman, rank ahead of him. The next closest playoff driver is Alex Bowman in 16th (3,470 laps – 48.3 percent).

Laps Led

Dillion also ranks 22nd in this category with 23 laps led. Jimmie Johnson is 21st with 29 laps led. Five non-playoff drivers separate them from Alex Bowman in 15th (67 laps led).

Percentage of Laps Run on Lead Lap

Dillon actually has the advantage over a fellow playoff driver here. Dillon was on the lead pace for 4,975 of 7,189 laps (69.2 percent). That’s 16th among drivers and one spot better than Bowman (4,965 laps for 69.1 percent). Newman is the lone non-playoff driver ahead of Dillon in 13th (5,733 laps for 79.75 percent).

Average Running Position

Dillon ranks 22nd here with an avg running spot of 18.505. The next best playoff driver is Bowman in 16th (16.598).