DARLINGTON, S.C. — Though a Hail Mary attempt at rim-riding the top of turns three and four at Darlington Raceway didn’t pay off, Austin Dillon still nearly won Sunday night’s 71st Cook Out Southern 500.
Had he been able to sneak past Kevin Harvick and pull off the upset, it would have been the third of NASCAR’s crown jewel events that Dillon has won. He captured 2017 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and 2018 Daytona 500 at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Dillon’s second-place finish in the Southern 500 is his best result in seven Southern 500 starts. In the fourth of the “modern-era majors,” the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Dillon has a career-best finish of ninth (2016) in eight appearances at that historic 2.5-mile oval.
Stepping up to the plate and performing in the sport’s biggest events seems to be a growing trend for Dillon, who hasn’t always been a consistent performer from week to week but has shined in recent years when the most prestigious trophies are on the line.
“I think lengthy races are a key for me,” Dillon told SPEED SPORT when asked why his team has been able to rise to the occasion in the crown jewels. “I like to stay in it and give me time to make adjustments on the car and just kind of grind and find different grooves on the track. I wouldn’t say I’m a slow learner. I learn, it just takes me sometimes a little while to get in that rhythm.
“I think that’s why I’ve been good at them, and I try not to make mistakes,” he added. “I try to be clean throughout the race.”
Dillon put together a virtually mistake-free race Sunday night and it paid off with a runner-up finish.
The driver of the No. 3 American Ethanol/Junior Johnson Throwback Chevrolet was in position in the top five to pounce late, when Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. crashed while racing for the lead with 15 laps to go.
That allowed Dillon to jump from fourth to second, chasing Kevin Harvick over the remaining laps before sailing through the top groove in turns three and four and coming up three tenths of a second of a second short.
Dillon felt as though his finish was amplified by the fact that he was able to have a clean 500 miles, where other contenders faltered at various points along the way.
“You can make mistakes over a race with just one little error, and I try and stay focused and not make those to give ourselves chances at the end of these things, because if you stay in the race, you’re going to have an opportunity, hopefully, when it comes down to it,” Dillon noted. “That’s what we did tonight. We gave ourselves the opportunity. The first two guys knocked the fence down, and then it was me and Harvick.
“I was so close to getting him in the middle of that run, and he just changed his line a little bit to gap me. I kind of burned up my right rear, but it was close. Almost,” Dillon added. “Another one (crown jewel win) would have been pretty cool. I think a lot of people would have been talking if we’d gotten another crown jewel.”
Despite that confidence and enthusiasm, Dillon admitted he still doesn’t completely know why his team continues to find themselves in position as of late in NASCAR’s majors – but he’s not complaining about it, either.
“I wish I could answer why, but I’ll tell you, I’ve always loved pressure situations,” said Dillon. “I think one thing that I’m very fortunate about is that my parents made me play other sports, from the time I was a kid. I didn’t start racing at eight. I started a little later than most, and I played a lot of other sports. I played in the Little League World Series, which my buddies joke with me about. I don’t bring up the Little League World Series much … I bring up, like, high school sports, but I’ve been in some pressure situations in sports with teammates and been relied upon to make a shot at that point.
“I’ve had to make game‑winning shots and even though it’s at a smaller level, to me it’s a big deal. It’s easy to miss a clutch putt that’s two foot,” Dillon added. “The clutch gene is a thing, I think. I don’t know why I like that. But I like that opportunity. I like the pressure. I want to be the guy with the ball at the end. Just give me a chance, and we had a chance tonight, for sure.”
The cards didn’t fall Dillon’s way Sunday night, but they have in the past. That’s something that Dillon takes solace in, even as he awaits his next NASCAR Cup Series victory.
“Things can go one way or the other, but we’ve been fortunate to make some of them happen,” Dillon noted. “That’s why we celebrate pretty hard when they do.”
And as for those who have given him grief in his Cup Series career for not being a consistent performer, Dillon had a message for them as well.
“I love the people that do support me and I also love the haters because that’s motivation. I use it as motivation, and hopefully I turn some of them by the end of my career,” he noted. “I think Dale Earnhardt is a guy that … when he was in his prime, there were a lot of people that didn’t like him, and then as time went on people started to love him. Even the haters couldn’t deny it. That’s what made him so special. Even if you didn’t like his style, he grew on you because he was a winner and he worked.
“I’m good with it. I think we can win people over one race at a time.”