Once upon a time, Richmond Raceway felt like a puzzle Austin Dillon would never solve. His first nine Cup starts at the 3/4-mile short track yielded no finishes better than 13th.
“I sucked there at the beginning of my career,” Dillon said this week in a media teleconference. “I dreaded going there. I said I wished Richmond would just not be a track anymore.”
But while he’s still seeking his first win at Richmond, the puzzle pieces are starting to fit.
In last September’s Cup Series playoff race at Richmond, Dillon recovered from a pit road speeding penalty and missing pit entrance prior to another stop to finish fourth. The outing was critical in Dillon advancing into the Round of 12.
It was also Dillon’s third finish of sixth or better in his last four Richmond races. And as he returns there Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox), his past worries are gone.
“We really looked at everything we did last year and didn’t change a whole lot,” he said. “But we went back over some things in the simulator and I think it should be a good one.
“Obviously, starting 11th helps. We have a good pit stall and we’re just going to go after it. We need to lock ourselves into the playoffs or better ourselves in points this weekend.”
Dillon has one top-five finish this season. But importantly, he’s finished no worse than 17th in six of eight races.
Largely avoiding the bad results have kept him inside the top 16 of the Cup playoff standings. He sits 13th entering Richmond, 24 points above the first driver out in 17th, Alex Bowman.
Overall, Dillon feels his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team is “moving in the right direction.”
“Obviously, our car has had speed since last year and we’ve been able to maintain some of that,” he added. “There are certain places where I feel like we can get better all around. But we’re in a good spot. We could be in a way worse spot.
“There are some guys back there in points that are looked at as favorites and are just in a bad position. We’re in a better position than what we have been at this point in the season before.”
Dillon hopes to continue momentum at Richmond, now a prime opportunity race for him after years of struggle.
As he looks back on those years, he now feels that his driving style has progressed to the point where the track finally suits him.
“In the past, it clashed I thought (laughs),” he said. “But now, we have longer runs; I feel like I’m a strong guy when it comes to long runs and taking care of my tires. I do a pretty good job of that.
“It was definitely tough early in my career; just trying to figure out what the car wanted. I don’t think I ever went the right direction on an adjustment. But now, as things have progressed, it’s kind of come to me in a good way.
“It’s one of those places that match what I think I’m good at.”