By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
What a year it’s been for 26-year-old Austin Dillon.
The driver who won championships at the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series levels, looked to be out of his element in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for the past couple of seasons. Fast forward to Sunday’s Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway, and Dillon was busy racing his way into the round of 12 of the 2016 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Dillon entered the day with a five-point deficit to Kyle Larson — who held the 12th-place spot in the point standings — but Larson had a battery issue early in the race. Larson then suffered a pit road penalty while addressing the battery problem, and as a result Larson’s day spiraled out of control.
With Larson out of the picture, the race for the final Chase spot came down to Dillon and Jamie McMurray, who entered the day tied in the standings.
McMurray showed a lot of speed, but he had developed a weird vibration on his No. 1 Chevrolet SS.
Turned out that vibration was the beginning of a terminal situation with his motor. A little while later, McMurray’s motor dropped a cylinder and then finally on lap 193 the engine expired in a plume of smoke.
McMurray would finish dead-last on the field in 40th.
This essentially meant that if Dillon could just minimize mistakes and have a decent day, he would be moving on in the Chase. Dillon did just that, and went on to finish eighth.
“I am still awestruck because things like this just don’t happen,” Dillon said after the race. “I am proud to be going on to the final 12 and having race cars that are capable of moving on. I have three really solid tracks coming up and I am going to drive the wheels off of it and have fun.”
Dover marks Dillon’s 11th top-10 finish of the season. To put his incredible year in perspective, Dillon had just nine total top-10 finishes over his previous two seasons in Sprint Cup competition.
Dillon ended up out-pointing Tony Stewart by 11 points to secure his spot in the next round of the Chase. Dillon didn’t care how many points he beat 13th by, he was just relieved about the big-picture ramifications of his finish.
“Man, I was just glad. I don’t care how many [points] it was; whether it was 12 or 11 or 2 or 1, as long as we’re in the next round,” said Dillon. “It feels good. It’s time to knock some more of these guys out because we’ve got this opportunity and I want to say that we’re going to be the underdog in this next round, so let’s go do it.”