By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Austin Dillon had a strong points night in Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, even coming up close of getting his second NASCAR Cup Series victory of the year.
Dillon’s 367-lap odyssey began with a low note due to the fact he had to start the race from the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments, relinquishing the 12th starting position.
During Sunday’s post-race video conference, Dillon went into detail on the pre-race hiccup that was a direct result of his tires being placed on the wrong side.
“Had the front tires flipped and had to go to the back. At least we found it before the race because I would’ve hit the fence,” said Dillon.
“I don’t know how it happened other than it was a mistake. When they put the tires on the car, somebody just didn’t see the L and didn’t see the R. They’re Sharpie’d on there and that’s how they found it.
“I walked up to the car and Justin (Alexander, crew chief) immediately had seen it and I was like. ‘Well, better change them now. There’s nothing we can do.’ So, we flipped them, put them back on the car and move to the rear.”
Once the green flag waived, Dillon’s Junior Johnson throwback gradually became strong as the race wind down, but that almost didn’t happen as he had a flat right rear tire that made him bring his No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE onto pit road.
The thought of doom was quickly erased when the caution came out for Brad Keselowski, who had right side damage on Lap 81.
“I was able to catch it and short pitted because the right rear was going flat,” Dillon the unscheduled stop. “The good lord blessed us because we caught a lot of breaks truthfully. We gained a lot of track positions because we were on good tires and the caution fell for us in a good spot.”
Once Dillon caught a big break, the rest of the race shifted at a more positive level. This was highlighted with an eighth-place result in Stage 2 and as the race began to bear down, the Texas winner was inside the top-five but little did he knew, his night would change.
That’s because with 15 laps remaining, Martin Truex, Jr. and Chase Elliott tangled and slammed into the Turn 1 wall while battling for the lead. The incident eliminated them from the fight, propelling Dillon from fourth to second and with a good shot at victory.
Dillon began gaining ground on Kevin Harvick, but was advised by his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing crew to worry about holding off third-place Joey Logano, who was also right in the mix.
Not an issue as Dillon began pulling away from Logano and suddenly began regaining ground on Harvick coming to the white flag. With just two corners left in Sunday’s frenzy contest, Dillon made one last brave charge to catch Harvick, but 0.343 seconds was all the difference that prevented him from adding another NASCAR Crown Jewel victory to his resume.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 7, 2020
“Son of a gun. I tried it guys,” Dillon over the radio after losing out at a Darlington victory. “I just lost the right rear at the end. Good job guys. Shit!”
Despite the agony of defeat, Dillon credited Sunday’s success towards his RCR squad for working hard on the simulator to make an older setup compatible for better take offs which paid dividends to their superb night in South Carolina.
“On the last corner, I burnt the right rear off of it trying to get there. We were just a little free but we’ve been working hard on the sim this week to make the car take off a little better. We adjusted and tweaked it a little bit,” said Dillon. “That’s what we wanted and it did which helped us keep our track position and ultimately gave us a shot at a Southern 500. So close to one of the crown jewels again. I like winning those things, but yeah it was a good run.”
Sunday’s result was Dillon’s third top-five of the season and after the Round of 16 opener, he’ll head to Richmond Raceway (Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) eighth in points and 10 markers above 13th place Clint Bowyer.