While many playoff drivers had a bad day in the opening playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Austin Dillon cruised to an 11th-place finish, though he believes it could have been better.
Dillon had to start the rear of the field for an unapproved adjustment after qualifying. The No. 3 instantly charged inside the top 20. Late in the going, the No. 3 car dodged late-race incidents, earning him enough points to head into Richmond Raceway 10th in the standings.
“I think it was the heat,” Dillon told Frontstretch of what caused the chaos in Sin City. “When you have a lot of guys out there, hot weekend, [it’s] hot in the car, you start making mental mistakes in the car. It was a pretty long race – Vegas is a long one. Mentally, it gets easy to have a slip up and when you do, you see what happened on Sunday.
“I felt like we were a top-five car. Looking back at lap times — especially on the long runs, we never got track position. We lost two to three spots every time we came down pit road and that was putting us back. I would gain them back, but by that time I’d level out on tires. I needed to be a little further to make something happen.”
Out of the three postseasons Dillon has qualified for, this is the best start he’s gotten off to. In his inaugural shot at the championship, the No. 3 was 13th following the playoff opener. Last year he was 12th. Currently, he has a nine-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson, the first driver behind the cut line.
All three races in the opening round of the playoffs this season are new to the postseason. This weekend the Cup Series is at Richmond Raceway, ending the first round at the unpredictable ROVAL, which currently has rain in the forecast for next Sunday.
Dillon, who has a career average finishing position of 21.1 in nine Cup starts at Richmond is hoping to leave with a bigger advantage than nine points heading to the ROVAL.
“We’re trying to gain as many points on the cut line and go to the ROVAL with a little bit of a cushion,” he said. “That’s what you want. We don’t really know anything about that place.
“It will be interesting. It’s going to be a wild race. I really don’t know, but I think it will be wilder than Vegas and that was pretty wild.”
In 2016, Dillon advanced to the Round of 12, nearly missing out on the Round of 8 by one point to Denny Hamlin. He believes with the speed Richard Childress Racing found at Michigan International Speedway in mid-August can translate to a run at the championship.
“Consistently having fast cars and you capitalize on those cars that you are given,” Dillon said. “Everybody is working hard with determination and grit. … I’m fine with flying under the radar. I’m good in that position and I think we perform well in that position. ”
Dillon started off the season by winning the Daytona 500. He considers a successful season is to get to the Round of 8, possibly getting a chance to race his way into the Championship 4 at Homestead.
But if he has to settle with the 500 win being his crowning achievement in 2018, that’s good with the North Carolina native.
“It’s the only race all year that they say you’re a champion of. Other than the championship that’s probably the best.”