Austin Dillon charges to another top-five finish

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Austin Dillon left Richmond excited about scoring back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his career. But he also left wondering what could have been.

Dillon finished fourth in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race despite a pit road speeding penalty and missing pit road another time.

“I wish I wouldn’t have had that speeding penalty,” Dillon said of his sixth speeding penalty of the season. “But we overcame that. … What a night for our team. I’ve been pretty confident in this team all year and now it’s starting to show more and more.”

MORE: Brad Keselowski wins playoff race at Richmond

Dillon and Joey Logano are the only drivers to score top-five finishes in each of the first two playoff races.

Dillon was strong throughout the 400-lap race. He had never led a lap in 13 previous Cup races at the track. He led 55 Saturday. It is the most laps the No. 3 car has led in a Cup race since Dale Earnhardt led 58 laps at Charlotte in October 2000.

“Richmond used to be my least favorite track,” Dillon said. “I hated it. I couldn’t do good in it in Xfinity. … I literally hated this place. Now, it is my favorite.”

The Richard Childress Racing driver took the lead from Kevin Harvick on Lap 21 and was near the front until his pit road speeding penalty on Lap 84. Both he and Denny Hamlin, a three-time Richmond winner, were penalized for speeding during their pit stops at the end of stage 1.

While Hamlin struggled to move up through the field, Dillon marched from 29th on Lap 89 to 11th on Lap 125.

Dillon returned to the lead on Lap 182 and held it for 36 circuits until Brad Keselowski, who was on fresher tires, went by. Dillon finished second in Stage 2, matching his result in the first stage.

With those 18 stage points, Dillon scored 51 points for the race. Only Keselowski had more points, scoring 57 with his victory.

Dillon’s point total puts him sixth in the standings. He’s 36 points ahead of William Byron, the first driver outside a transfer spot heading into next weekend’s cutoff race at Bristol.

The only other hiccup for Dillon on Saturday was missing pit road on Lap 335, forcing him to make another trip about the three-quarter mile track before pitting.

“The biggest thing is when we came to pit road for our second green-flag stop in Stage 3, we were trying to bring everybody down,” Dillon said. “The No. 1 car (of Kurt Busch) was in my mirror on (fresher) tires. I overdrove that entry just a little bit thinking that I needed to avoid getting rear-ended, and then it was like ‘Oh no, I’m going to hit the red (commitment line) box’ so I had to make another lap around the track. That cost us three seconds.”

He had a good enough car to finish in the top five and put him a good position to transfer to the second round. He has failed to advance out of the first round the last two times he’s been in the playoffs.

But this year looks to be different.

“I felt our team has really turned the corner the last couple of weeks,” Dillon said. “I felt like Richard Childress Racing as a whole has had speed all year. … We’ve got a really good team.”