DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Austin Dillon had his work cut out for him on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. But he was up for it.
Entering the regular season finale, Dillon was 25 points below his Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick for the final playoff position. At the same time, the No. 3 team had accumulated the 13th most points through 25 races, though four drivers below him had scored wins.
That was the difference.
During the Coke Zero Sugar 400, Dillon showed yet again his RCR team prepared a hot rod. It didn’t take long for the No. 3 Chevrolet to improve on its 27th-place starting position, as he finished the opening stage in sixth, gaining five points Reddick.
In the second stage, Dillon made a bold in-and-out move on the final lap, reaching second on the scoring pylon. Reddick, however, finished not far behind in fourth. Entering the final stage, the No. 3 team was at an 18-point disadvantage.
Over the final 60 laps, Dillon remained a contender, battling at the front of the field. But, during an eight-car pileup with less than 15 laps remaining — which included Reddick — the team elected to replace the battery, as he was having voltage issues. Turned out that was a non-factor for the remainder of the race.
Dillon raced himself up to fourth when the caution flew to set up a green-white-checkered finish. His eyes opened being in that position, having past success from that exact spot.
“That’s where we won the race from when we won the [2018 Daytona] 500, so I was really confident at that point,” Dillon said after the race. “It’s hard to tell yourself to be patient.”
On the restart, Dillon was aggressive, but had no help from behind coming to the white flag. Ultimately, the No. 3 Chevrolet was caught up in a big wreck on the final lap while running eighth.
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End result: Dillon 18th, missing the playoffs by 30 markers.
“I feel like I did everything I could,” Dillon added. “I made a mistake or two out there trying to be aggressive and get stage points. Lost a couple that first stage, but was able to get to second in the second stage with a rally good move.
“Coming to the white into [Turn] 3, the [No.] 12 and whoever was pushing him got a little loose and I felt like I had an opportunity because the [No.] 17 had dropped and I wanted to get a run and try to do the best if we could get to first and second and battle it out with him. [No.] 42 came with us and he split us at the line and I was three wide in the middle.”
Dillon said he was hoping someone would latch onto his rear bumper and propel him forward. That happened, but he was caught up in the “melee,” which collected a total of nine cars, beginning with contact between Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez.
Dillon said, “It’s unfortunate because we raced our tails off and came up a little short. Hats off to all my guys on the 3 team; they built two rocket ships for me to try to get in with and we came up short.”
Knowing he had two racecars that could have potentially won each of the last two races is a positive sign for the race team. It also allows Dillon to get over missing the postseason a bit easier, knowing the potential of winning was there.
In the end, he believes he gave it all he had.
“I definitely put myself in as many positions tonight as I could to lead laps and win the race,” he said. “I hate it that we didn’t get a victory throughout the year because this was a one-off year where a ton of people got to victory lane. We beat a lot of those guys on points that won races, but it didn’t matter because wins matter now. We were close a couple of times, just didn’t pan out for us.”
How good was Dillon compared to the other cars that missed the postseason? He enters the final 10 races with a 107-point advantage over Matt DiBenedetto, who ranks 18th in points.
Now that his chance of winning the 2021 championship is over, Dillon is focused on being as good of a teammate as he can to Reddick, who he believes can be a real spoiler in his first postseason.
“He definitely could go pretty far,” Dillon said of Reddick. “He’s very talented and I know that RCR will give them their best shot each and every week in the playoffs. It’s what we do and I’ll be trying to help as much as I can as a teammate cheering him on.”
The series heads to the Southern 500 where Dillon finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick last September.