By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Richard Childress Racing’s stress levels were already chaotic entering Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Especially for one Austin Dillon, who was 28 points behind teammate Tyler Reddick for the 16th and final playoff spot. With just a single race left in the regular season, the stress levels reached the summit after Dillon’s hard crash at the end of Stage 2.
After holding off Brad Keselowski for the sixth spot to collect five stage points, Dillon would get clipped by Keselowski and sent to the frontstretch wall at speeds over 185 mph.
The impact lifted Dillon’s No. 3 BREZTRI Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE up in the air. Fortunately, Dillon wouldn’t end up on his lid and was able to get out of his car under his own power.
However, rather than cutting the gap on Reddick, he’ll have to win next Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona. It’s may be the only way Dillon can make his sixth playoff appearance.
Immediately after the crash, Keselowski was angry at himself about the ordeal over the radio.
“Aw man, I didn’t want to do that! Ugh,” Keselowski agonizingly exclaimed. “I didn’t want to wreck him but follow him down. I’m sorry about that.”
After the race, Keselowski remained bummed about the accident and had little to say on the matter.
“I hate that I had that contact with the 3. That really sucks for everybody,” Keselowski on Dillon’s exit. “It really hurt our day and obviously ruined his. That was crappy. So it goes.”
Before the crash, Dillon was among the fastest cars among the 37-car field. He even duked it out with NASCAR’s best, including Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott and wound up third in the opening stage.
As the second stage came down to the wire, Dillon’s pace fell a bit where he couldn’t match the leaders. Thus, leading up to the situation with Keselowski which Dillon explained that he fought hard to fend him off.
“I was just trying to get as many Stage points as I could get right there. Did a good job of side-drafting and came down to the apron. But after the Start/Finish Line,” said Dillon.
“I was starting to come up off the apron because it’s so rough down there. But I figured by that point, he would have given me a little room. I hate it. I’m thankful that the good Lord kept me safe today. That was a heck of a wreck, but I feel fine.”
In the end, it didn’t work out as the “best car” RCR brought to the track this year is junked.
“I hate it for BREZTRI and my guys, most of all. The built a rocket ship,” said Dillon. “They really wanted this one, and I did too. Just working our tails off right there. I think we would have had a shot to do something there at the end with our race car.
“It’s the best race car we’ve brought to the track at RCR this year, I feel like. It’s just a bummer but we’ve got Daytona left and I just hate it. I don’t know why it happened, really. I thought I had a little room to come up and he just held me down there a little bit too long, I guess.”
Down and out the No. 3 team may be with a 36th place finish, but very determined to bounce back.
“The guys have worked so hard. You saw the equipment I had today and man it was so fast. I was having a blast out there racing like that. It’s fun to be able to do that,” Dillon explained. “I’ve just got to thank ECR and RCR. But that one is probably done, and we’ll just bring another one next week to Daytona.”
Luck would later favor Dillon after Reddick’s last-race woes, including two incidents, cut the gap between them down to 25 points. Dillon’s 14 stage points he collected certainly played a role in spite of not finishing the 200-lap race.
As long as there’s no new winner Reddick and Dillon are ahead of, it’ll come down to them for the final playoff spot. Coverage of the 160-lap madness begins Saturday at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBC. William Byron is the defending race winner.