Did You Notice?… Austin Dillon led just eight laps during the first 25 races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season?
That didn’t stop him from crashing this year’s playoff party, slipping through the wreckage at Daytona International Speedway to go from a lap down to the leader of the race in a matter of minutes. No one benefitted more from the rainstorm that came out of nowhere, wiping out half the field, than the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team.
Even Dillon admitted it was a stroke of luck to be in the right place, right time to get through it all.
“I don’t know what you call that,” Dillon said. “We went from 15th to first. I know what it’s called. It’s called the good Lord was looking after us.”
Dillon then survived a late challenge from rookie Austin Cindric, pulling the bump-and-run on a superspeedway to earn his fourth career Cup victory. All of them have come under unusual circumstances, with Dillon leading a grand total of of 35 laps in those wins. That’s less than 10 laps out front, on average, every time he’s reached victory lane.
It makes Dillon one of the more polarizing drivers on the Cup circuit. Some think he’s underrated, unfairly criticized for a nine-year Cup career in a car once driven by Hall of Fame talent. Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Kevin Harvick combined for 90 victories and six championships with the No. 3/29 car from 1984-2013.
Dillon is a different personality, without that duo’s aggressive swagger and some of the eye-popping statistics they’ve accumulated. Critics say he’s only still in the car because of nepotism; Austin’s the grandson of Richard Childress and the son of team Executive Vice President Mike Dillon.
It’s a connection rarely lost on the driver himself. One of the more compelling moments of his post-race presser at Daytona is when Dillon opened up about teammate Tyler Reddick leaving the organization for 23XI Racing in 2024.
“For me, being an owner’s son sometimes comes with caveats, and I wanted to make sure that I had nothing to do with the reasons that he was leaving,” Dillon said. “When I called him, I was like, ‘Hey, man, I just want make sure I’ve been a good teammate to you.’ He said, ‘No, you have been an amazing teammate. Me and Alexa (de Leon, Reddick’s girlfriend) really enjoyed being around you guys.'”
Could you ever imagine the elder Earnhardt having that crisis of confidence? Should Dillon be more comfortable in his own skin based on his NASCAR achievements to date?
There’s a case to be made on both sides for how his Cup career has panned out.
THE CASE FOR AUSTIN DILLON
- Dillon’s postseason bid was the fifth for him in NASCAR’s nine-year, 16-driver playoff format. Only 10 drivers have more postseason berths from 2014-22. When compared to some of his peers who ran full-time during most of this stretch, Dillon has as many playoff bids as Aric Almirola and more than Ryan Newman (three), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (one) and Michael McDowell (one).
- Dillon now has two career Daytona victories. That’s more than Cup champions Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. NASCAR Hall of Famers like three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip and 1973 Cup champion Benny Parsons only won once there.
- Two of Dillon’s four victories have come in crown jewel events: the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Only four other active drivers have won both those races: Harvick, Denny Hamlin and the Busch brothers (both Kurt and Kyle).
- Dillon and Greg Biffle are the only two drivers to win championships in both the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck series.
- Dillon has the exact same average finish this season as Reddick (16.7), who is looked at as a possible dark horse title contender.
- Compared to another famous nepotism case, Dillon’s career average finish of 17.7 bests Paul Menard (20.2). Menard only made the playoffs once during his 13-year Cup career and earned just one victory: the 2011 Brickyard 400.
- Dillon has never had a disastrous season in the No. 3. In nine seasons, he has never finished lower than 21st in the standings.
- Off the track, at age 32, Dillon is one of the sport’s media-savvy drivers and contributes outside of the racecar, piloting his own reality series on USA Network (Life In The Fast Lane). He’s maximizing the opportunity given in other ways.
THE CASE AGAINST AUSTIN DILLON
- The ride Dillon inherited won six championships with Earnhardt. Harvick, from 2001-13, was top 10 or better in the standings eight times. Dillon, in his first eight full-time seasons, has never finished a year higher than 11th in points.
- Dillon has led a total of 351 laps in 326 career Cup starts. That’s a little over one lap per start. By comparison, eight drivers have led over 351 laps through 26 races this year. Earnhardt, while driving the No. 3 car, once led 3,357 laps in one season back in 1987.
- Dillon’s collected just 20 top-five finishes over the course of nine seasons. Again, Earnhardt collected 21 top fives in just one year (1987), running circles around Dillon’s accomplishments. More recently, Kyle Larson produced 20 top fives last season during his run to the championship.
- Here’s a breakdown of Dillon’s four wins …
2017 Coca-Cola 600: A fuel-mileage race where Dillon didn’t take the lead until the final two laps. He never finished higher than seventh in the race’s first three stages.
2018 Daytona 500: Dillon never led this race until the backstretch of the final lap, making contact with Almirola as the No. 10 car came up to block.
“I thought I was still gonna be OK,” Almirola said, who was comfortable with the contact. “Somehow, I got hooked.”
2020 O’Reilly Auto Parts 500: Dillon, who didn’t score a single stage point, got to the front through pit strategy, as RCR chose to keep him and teammate Reddick out on old tires during a lap 307 caution. The duo ended up with a 1-2 finish, surviving a series of final restarts where passing out front proved near-impossible with NASCAR’s clean air handling package at the time.
2022 Coke Zero Sugar 400: Dillon got involved in a wreck on lap 125, losing a lap after driving down pit road in reverse following the incident. The lucky dog/free pass got him back on the lead lap moments later, where he was sent to the rear and in perfect position to dodge the rain-induced carnage that followed.
Dillon never led the race before that gigantic wreck. From there, he had just nine other lead-lap cars to contend with, most of whom were serious underdogs or heavily damaged. His lone rival on speed, Cindric, got knocked out of the way through a bumpdraft after he snuck by Dillon for the lead on the final restart.
In summary: four of the most bizarre, arguably circumstantial wins in the history of any Cup driver’s career. You have to put yourself in position to win, as Jeff Burton likes to say, but there was a whole lot of Lady Luck on Dillon’s side for those.
Which side of the Austin Dillon debate do you land on?
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- More to come on the Jeremy Clements engine penalty, I’m sure, and we don’t know enough yet. But the circumstances remind me of Carl Long’s $200,000 fine in Cup years ago for an oversized engine. Whatever the violation, was it really giving Clements an advantage over the rest of the NASCAR Xfinity Series field? Sometimes, the sport gets tangled up in making too many rules for its own good.
- Could you imagine if Truex was retiring this season instead of after 2023? Yes, the guy got screwed in a weird year, but there’s no better way to earn yourself a little extra motivation and ensure you go out on a high note.
- Another sign of the changing of the guard in this sport: two drivers saw their streak of making every NASCAR elimination-style playoff end in 2022 (Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch). That leaves just three drivers who have gone nine-for-nine during the current playoff era: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.