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).

Jimmie Johnson to drive rookie paint scheme in Cup season finale

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Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports will end their 17-year relationship with Lowe’s in style.

When Johnson and the No. 48 team show up for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 18 on NBC), Johnson’s car will have his rookie year paint scheme from 2002.

Johnson follows Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, who drove their rookie schemes in last year’s season finale.

The scheme will cap off a partnership that began with two Cup starts in 2001 before Johnson went full-time the next year.

In 2002, Johnson earned the first three wins of his career and sat on the pole for the Daytona 500. His first win came on April 28 at Auto Club Speedway.

With Lowe’s, Johnson has won seven championships and 83 races. Lowe’s announced in March it would not sponsor Johnson in 2019.

NASCAR America: Experience vs. Youth: Justin Allgaier battling Christopher Bell

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The Cup series has the Big 3. Xfinity has the Dynamic Duo.

As the Xfinity Series begins its playoffs Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), many experts believe two drivers have an easy path to Homestead. Justin Allgaier has scored five wins and 39 playoff points. Christopher Bell has 32 playoff points. The next closest driver is Elliott Sadler with 11.

Allgaier is mindful of the accomplishments that brought him to this position. He is having a career year and knows it.

“Up until last year I’d won maybe one race a year at the max,” Allgaier told NBCSN’s Marty Snider during Xfinity Media Day. “Last year we won two, which was spectacular, but to be able to win five races this year, to have the regular-season championship, to just be as successful as we’ve been this year is just amazing.”

But that does not make him a favorite in his mind. There are simply too many other drivers that can win. Too many variables.

“There’s so many competitors right now in this Xfinity Series that are just absolutely fantastic. I don’t know that we have a clear-cut favorite,” Allgaier said.

On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Jeff Burton agreed.

“I think that (Allgaier’s) a favorite, but by a little bit, not a lot. … When I think about the Xfinity race from Richmond in the spring, Joe Gibbs Racing dominated it and it will be interesting to see, now as we go to more mile-and-halves … can Joe Gibbs Racing and Christopher Bell … get their rhythm back.”

Kyle Petty also puts Bell in the battle.

“This kid’s confident,” Petty said. “He shows confidence in every turn of the wheel. Everything he does. … and he shows great maturity.

“We’ve got youth and exuberance in Christopher Bell. We’ve got experience and maturity in Justin Allgaier and this is a battle. And it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America: Elliott Sadler wants to shed the bridesmaid role

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Elliott Sadler is the Mark Martin of the Xfinity Series, according to NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty.

“He’s been so close … so often. He’s almost like the Mark Martin of this series. Mark finished second so many times in the (Cup) championship.”

Martin finished second in the Cup standings five times without winning a championship. Sadler has finished second four times in the Xfinity Series and has not been worse than sixth since rejoining it fulltime in 2011.

Sadler knows the burning question is how he can shed the bridesmaid role. He also has a firm grip on what that is going to take.

“Justin (Allgaier) and Christopher (Bell) have pretty much told us you’re gonna have to win to advance,” Sadler told Marty Snider at Tuesday’s Xfinity Media Day. “They have been extremely fast – especially here lately. They’ve got nine wins between them.”

And with those nine wins, the playoff bonus points that ease their way to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

To join them in Miami, Sadler has to keep from getting swept into the temptation to make something happen that the handling of the car will not support.

“As a driver, you’ve got to understand not to get too high and not to get too low – to try and stay even tempered because the intensity is definitely ramped up and you can get yourself in trouble here real quick and the next thing you know you’re digging yourself out of a hole,” Sadler said.

Petty agrees. While Sadler’s lack of a championship does not detract from his career any more than it did Martin’s, earning that elusive honor is going to be tough for the very reasons Sadler identified.

“He’s probably mentally in a better place this year, but he’s going up against a couple of guys in Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier … that he believes are already in Homestead,” Petty said. “He’s going up against guys that are having career years.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America Scan All: ‘Three in a row at Vegas. Cha-ching, baby’

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In NASCAR, drivers have to be both lucky and good – something that Kyle Busch and Adam Stevens learned at Las Vegas.

After spinning on Lap 233 while running 18th, Kyle Busch was lucky that his splitter did not get torn off the car. Unfortunately, the right front tire went down in that incident.

“It’s not going to stay together,” Busch said as he limped around the track back to the pits. “We’re gonna [expletive] go a lap down.”

“There’s nobody one lap down here, so we can afford to go one down,” Stevens replied.

Their luck held. On Lap 247, teammate Denny Hamlin spun into the grass at almost the exact spot, but his splitter dug into the grass and was ripped from the car.

“We’ll be the Lucky Dog here,” Stevens told Busch over the radio. “We have a set of stickers left. I don’t think hardly anybody on the lead lap has a set of stickers.”

With fresh tires, Busch charged up to seventh.

Here are some of this week’s highlights from Scan All:

  • “Championship run starts now. We’ve got a good car; something we can win with today. Give ourselves a good shot in Miami.” – Joey Logano
  • “I am a [expletive] 10 tight. I don’t know what we’re doing to this thing, but we might as well [expletive] start over.” – Kyle Busch
  • “Listen to me. I know it’s frustrating, but we are right in the middle of this thing.” – Jeremy Bullins, Ryan Blaney’s crew chief said after Blaney and Aric Almirola made contact on the track
  • “I know. I’ll calm down.” – Blaney
  • “No you won’t, but it’s ok. I still love you.” – Bullins
  • “It don’t matter if I speed, slide into the box. It don’t [expletive] matter. We’re going to get our [expletive] kicked when we get to the pit box.” – Austin Dillon
  • “Hey. Listen here. These guys know they were slow, ok? They know. We’re talking about it.” – Danny Stockman, Dillon’s crew chief
  • “I love everybody on this team, but we’re not going to have a shot doing this.” – Dillon
  • “Guess we know what’s wrong. Piece of [expletive] tires.” – Kevin Harvick
  • “If we could have had the lead, we’d of been fine. I just got to wait for it to come to me.” – Martin Truex Jr.
  • “Three in a row at Vegas. Cha-ching, baby.” – Brad Keselowski’s spotter

For more, watch the video above.

(Editor’s Note: Danny Stockman was the crew chief for Austin Dillon this week instead of Justin Alexander. We regret the error.)

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter