He may not have shown the speed Dale Earnhardt did in the No. 3, but for the first time, Austin Dillon showed potential for victory.
Leading the field to green on two occasions in the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season, the 26-year-old made the Chase for the first time before a heartbreaking result ended his championship hopes early.
Despite a disappointing ending, the year got up and rolling in no time when Dillon earned a ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500. Backing that up with finishes of 11th, fifth and ninth in the next three races, Dillon quickly emerged as a Chase favorite unlike years past.
And it didn’t stop there. The speed led the Richard Childress Racing team into Auto Club Speedway, where a pole run for Dillon would bring the No. 3 back to the top of the pylon.
“I’m not just a Daytona 500 polesitter now, I got a pole somewhere else,” Dillon said. “To do it at a driver’s racetrack like this here at Fontana means a lot to me.”
Failing to lead a lap before finishing 24th in the Sunday race, the weekend kept Dillon in the top 10 in points before he grabbed another top-5 run in fourth the next weekend in Martinsville.
Things looked to be on track toward a champagne-soaked season.
Wait… maybe not. That stellar consistency found a bump in the road come Texas in April when Dillon got caught up in a crash late on the 1.5-miler. The wreck was a prelude to finishes of 26th and 20th in the following two events.
At a time like this, you would think Talladega would be a good place to find some luck to get back up front. Well, the day started off rough for Dillon, who got swallowed up in not one wreck, not two or three, but four separate accidents that nearly destroyed the DOW Chemical Chevrolet.
Following 17 pit stops to repair the damage throughout the race, Dillon restarted 17th with three laps to go and drove all the way to third place at the checkered flag in one of the wildest races in recent memory of Talladega.
With shades of Dale Sr. behind the wheel, the Lewisville, North Carolina, native thinks a couple more spots on the last restart could have given him a first win that day in May.
“From 17th to third, that was pretty cool,” he said. “One guy said Dale’s last win here, he came from 15th to first. Maybe if we restarted 15th, we could have gotten there.”
Topping a career-best Cup finish, Dillon, however, would continue his ‘two-good-for-two-bad’ finishing streaks with two top 10s in the next six races to sugar-coat two finishes outside the top 30.
The summer stretch leading into the Chase saw some improvement in consistency, as Dillon grabbed three more top 10s, a fourth at Bristol and one of the best battles of the year at Pocono in August. It was there where Dillon traded the lead – and some paint – with fellow 2014 rookie Kyle Larson for the lead while the weather threatened to end the race at any moment.
Three laps out front in the rain-shortened event proved to be the most green-flag laps Dillon led all year before he finished 13th.
Another season-best run would last six weeks, that being a streak of top-16 finishes that kicked off the opening round of the Chase.
Advancing to the Round of 12, Dillon’s Chase run would take a massive blow in Race No. 1 at Charlotte when contact with Martin Truex, Jr. turned the No. 3 hard into the inside wall on a late restart.
Deep in the Chase standings with only two races left to redeem himself, Dillon made it interesting with finishes of sixth and ninth. Unfortunately for him, Denny Hamlin tallied up identical points, which led to a tiebreaker in the elimination race at Talladega.
Dillon was out by the skin of his teeth.
To close out the season, the finishes varied from top 15s to a 39th at Phoenix. The true positive after the elimination came at Texas when Dillon earned a shock second pole of the season ahead of the year’s top Chasers.
Leading six laps under the green-yellow condition to start the night, Dillon overcame a spin to rebound into the top 5. That was until a tap from Kevin Harvick led Dillon into the Turn 4 wall.
Another disappointment may have ended the season, but it kept the same feeling as the start, with a potential for victory always there.
2016 saw career-high numbers in top 5s , top 10s , point finish [14th], average start [14.0] and average finish [15.9]. On that note, 2016 was special for reasons outside the racetrack, too.
— Austin Dillon (@austindillon3) August 10, 2016
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