In the spirit of NASCAR’s throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway, think back to the 2017 season. It’s the last time Richard Childress Racing put multiple cars in the Cup Series playoffs.
Can they do it again in 2021?
Back then, both drivers punched their tickets to the postseason with victories. Veteran Ryan Newman stole a win at Phoenix Raceway in March by declining to pit during a late caution period, then holding off a horde of drivers on fresher tires during an overtime finish. A couple of months later, during the Coca-Cola 600, Austin Dillon stretched his fuel mileage farther than any of the frontrunners, capturing his first Cup Series win.
Since that season, RCR has only won two other Cup races: the 2018 Daytona 500 and last year’s summer race at Texas Motor Speedway. Both of those wins were by Dillon and each one was crucial to his admission into the playoffs. Despite winning the Great American Race, Dillon dropped out of the top 15 in overall points after 10 races in 2018. The No. 3 team never regained that lost ground and would have been left out altogether if not for the big victory.
Dillon’s Texas win last season was another that came via strategy. He and new teammate Tyler Reddick took fuel only on their final pit stops, giving them the top two spots when the race restarted with 23 laps remaining. The win bumped Dillon up to 14th in points, but he slipped back to 17th after a poor finish in the very next event. To make matters worse, Dillon had to miss a race a few weeks later due to NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols. Sitting out a week did not prevent Dillon from participating in the postseason, but it did cause him to lose more points. Once again, a win was directly responsible for his advancement into the playoffs.
Ever since Kevin Harvick’s departure at the end of 2013, these types of performances have been the reality at RCR. The team’s drivers, particularly Dillon, have been able to steal wins once in a while, using them to advance into the playoffs. But RCR has rarely been fast enough to regularly challenge for victories and compete for playoff positions on points alone. Newman did not win any races in 2014 or 2015, but he made the playoffs on points in both seasons. Paul Menard also took his Childress Chevy to the 2015 postseason without a victory.
Dillon finally cracked the playoffs for the first time in 2016. He did it without a win and, despite being a heavy underdog in the postseason fight, nearly advanced to the Round of 8. Ending the Round of 12 in a tie for eighth place with Denny Hamlin, Hamlin’s third-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway broke the tie, knocking Dillon out of the championship battle.
During the next four seasons, Dillon appeared in the playoffs three times. But it wasn’t until last year that he was able to advance out of the first round again. In fact, Dillon reeled off two top fives to start the playoffs in 2020, which was half of his top-five total for the entire season. Although he did not make it out of the Round of 12, Dillon’s strong postseason runs offered some positives for the No. 3 team heading into 2021.
Now, 12 races into the current season, both of RCR’s drivers find themselves right in the thick of the playoff battle. Reddick, in particular, has been impressive over the last few weeks. After March’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he and the No. 8 team were a disastrous 28th in overall points. But Reddick has quietly righted the ship since then, earning four top 10s in the last six races. With a 12th-place finish at Darlington Raceway, Reddick now finds himself tied with Matt DiBenedetto for the last playoff position. Expect both drivers to stay in the scramble for the final few spots over the next 14 races.
As for Dillon and the No. 3 team, they are off to their best start in years. With one top five and five top 10s so far, Dillon is 12th in overall points, 48 above the cutline. Since race winners Alex Bowman and Michael McDowell are lower in points, Dillon is actually 14th on the current playoff grid. But for the first time since 2016, Dillon looks like a driver strong enough to qualify for the postseason on points without falling back on a win.
Of course, Dillon and Reddick would take the victories if they can get them. Race-winning speed remains elusive for both drivers; Dillon has led only eight laps this season while Reddick has led nine. Strategy remains the most likely way either of them would get to victory lane.
However, on days when RCR’s drivers are not challenging for wins, the team looks better than it has in several years. Every driver and team owner wants to win races, but it is a positive for Childress’ group that Dillon and Reddick have a shot to replicate what Newman and Menard did in 2015. For a team that has been stuck in mediocrity for far too long, RCR now finds itself with multiple realistic paths to the postseason for both its drivers. Do not count them out as the battle for the playoffs continues on into the summer.