Austin Dillon proves hot start was no fluke at Martinsville

Apr 2, 2016; Martinsville, VA, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Austin Dillon (3) during practice for the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 2, 2016; Martinsville, VA, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Austin Dillon (3) during practice for the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Dillon has won at nearly every level in NASCAR. He was the 2010 Rookie of the Year and 2011 champion in the Camping World Trucks Series. Dillon followed that up with a 2012 Rookie of the Year and 2013 championship in the Xfinity Series.

His one bugaboo? Winning at the Sprint Cup level.

Dillon still doesn’t have that elusive win, but he’s never seemed closer than he is in 2016.

The Richard Childress Racing driver turned heads after a ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500 — his fourth at the superspeedway. He then rattled off two more top-10 finishes at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the Easter break. Dillon also won the pole at Fontana despite his 24th-place finish.

So why was Sunday such a big deal? Dillon not only fought back from poor qualifying to finish fourth, but he also showed patience at the top of the pack. Oh, and he had never finished better than 12th at Martinsville during his career.

“To start 29th and to drive up through there like we did is a testament to these guys and effort they put in,” Dillon said. “I struggled at this track qualifying. Seemed to race well, I just have never really been good qualifying or practicing. We did a lot to help me as a driver today.”

Let’s put this season into perspective for Dillon. He’s already set a career mark with two top fives and matched his rookie campaign with three top 10s. That’s through six races, not an entire season.

Image courtesy of @NASCARHomeTrack.

Image courtesy of @NASCARHomeTrack.

Yeah, Dillon is proving his doubters wrong. He’s also giving his fanbase and himself something to be proud of in 2016. Like most teams in NASCAR, a lot of that success falls back in on guys in the RCR garage.

“I didn’t like myself last year,” Dillon said. “I didn’t like who I was for the team. I was frustrated and I wanted to be better for these guys. When they step up, they make me better. I’m trying to be different, but I’m not doing a lot of different stuff. They’re just building me a lot better race cars.”

Dillon didn’t come away with a top-five result without a fight. In fact, he feuded with teammate Paul Menard at Martinsville, who made contact with his RCR teammate. Menard wasn’t too keen on having to battle Dillon for position, saying over his radio, “That lil’ [expletive] has to give me some room some day.”

Both drivers met after the race, shaking hands before heading to the garage. Even with all of the maturity he’s shown on the track, Dillon admitted he still has plenty of room to grow.

“I’ve got to learn to keep my mouth shut on the radio,” Dillon said with a smile. “That’s part of racing. I’m a fiery guy, and it was fun today. Sometimes you’ve just got to grow up a little bit, but it’s nice to be running up front. … It’s Martinsville. Your head’s hot. You say things you don’t want to mean.”

The next question for Dillon to answer is: Can he win a race at NASCAR’s highest level? He still looks a step behind drivers like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, but a win is not far off for Dillon.

Ask me that same question last year, and I’d say there was no chance. That’s how far Dillon has already come in just six races this season. What he does over the next 20 will be telling of how special this season becomes with his first Chase berth on the line.

 

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