Entering the 2020 NASCAR Cup Playoffs, Austin Dillon was not part of the conversation.
But after the first two races, the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet is currently sixth in the standings and the top representative from the Bow-tie Brigade.
Although it might be premature to place the third-generation, 30-year-old racer amongst the Championship 4 contenders, a most-improved moniker among the candidates is certainly warranted.
Dillon was tied for 10th-place in the standings with Aric Almirola entering the postseason. He has since leapfrogged over the three Hendrick drivers and Ryan Blaney, who has spiraled from seventh to the Playoff cellar. As for Almirola, he’s still 10th, now tied with Kurt Busch.
Dillon, who was sidelined by coronavirus and missed the Daytona Road Course race on August 16, has made a remarkable post-COVID comeback. His victory at Texas Motor Speedway in July locked the driver, now in his seventh full-time Cup season, into his fourth Playoff appearance after missing the post-season last year. Yet after sitting as low as 18th in the standings just one month ago, Dillon has gained 12 positions over the last five races with his first back-to-back top-five finishes.
“I’ve felt like our team had really turned the corner over the last couple of weeks,” Dillon said. “RCR, as a whole, has had speed all year between myself, Justin (Alexander, crew chief) and our engineer Billy Scott, spotter Brandon (Benesch), and everybody at the shop, the mechanics. We have a really good team. We’ve shown a lot of speed this year and didn’t get some of the finishes we deserved.
“I think at some of the short tracks, we really didn’t get to show what we had this year. When we saw the three short tracks in the first round, I was pretty confident. Darlington, we did work on a new setup after the first two races because we thought we were ok and needed to get better and just put in the extra time. Starting position is a lot of that, too. We’ve been able to start forward being part of the top 16. But Richmond, I’ve always felt like that’s what we circled to come win in this Playoff round after two sixth-place finishes over the last three starts there. But I never got to start up front.”
Track position made all the difference for Dillon at Richmond. Rolling off third, he was able to pass Kevin Harvick for the lead on Lap 21—his first time at the point on the .75-mile track. His fourth-place at Richmond was not only a career-best at the venue, but so were his 55 laps led at any track raced. Dillon’s 135 laps led in 2020 are also tops his career.
“What a night for our team,” Dillon said. “I’ve been pretty confident in this team all year and now it’s starting to show because we’re getting the finishes.
“We’re in a good spot here. The more and more people start talking about you, the pressure builds. But we’re just going to stay in our zone. I’ve been in this position before, whether it’s the truck series or the Xfinity Series. I just want to keep knocking down these finishes.”
Dillon enters the final race of Round 1 at Bristol Motor Speedway with a 36-point advantage over 13th-place William Byron. He finished sixth at the half-mile bullring when the Cup Series raced there in May, his second-best Bristol result.
For Dillon, there’s nothing but blue sky ahead.
“We’re headed to Bristol Motor Speedway in a good spot, and it’s exciting to know we still have eight more chances to try and get another win. Our confidence level for Bristol is pretty high.
“I’m in a good spot right now. My family is doing well. It’s cool having a son at home. I feel like I’ve matured as a driver and I’m in that age zone where things start clicking a little bit. You notice a bunch of these guys, when they getting a little older in age, when things start coming to them really well. Some people do it faster than others. But it’s a good time right now for me and the 3 team and everyone at RCR.
“I want to keep seizing the moment when we get these opportunities to start up from and collect as many of them as we can.”