Team: #3 (Richard Childress Racing)
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 13
Best finish: 3rd (Talladega, May)
Points finish: 14th
Austin Dillon entered 2016 with hopes of improving upon his 21st-place points finish in 2015. In addition to running a part-time Xfinity Series schedule, he returned to the #3 for a third season.
Dillon opened the season with top-10 finishes in three of the first four races, along with finishing 11th in the lone race where he failed to finish within that region. At Fontana, his weekend had a strong start by winning the pole for the Cup race. In the Xfinity race, he survived a chaotic last lap to hold off Kyle Busch for the win, snapping Busch’s three-race winning streak. However, his fortunes in the Cup race were not as lucky as he finished 24th. At Talladega, he finished a season- and career-best 3rd place after overcoming a race-high 16 pit stops and receiving heavy amounts of tape to his car’s nose.
Despite not recording a win in the regular season, he successfully qualified for his first career Chase on points with 10 top-ten finishes. In the Round of 16, he was on the brink of elimination until an 8th-place finish at Dover advanced him to the Round of 12. However, a 32nd-place finish at the following race in Charlotte after being collected in a crash dropped him down the standings. Although he was able to fight back with top-10 finishes in the next two races, he missed out on advancing to the Round of 8 after losing on a tiebreaker to Denny Hamlin.
He ended the 2016 season with another pole at Texas, but struggled in the last four races; his average finish was 26.25 as he finished 14th in points.
The Dover Chase race. Faced with elimination from the Round of 16, he trailed Kyle Larson for the final position in the Round of 12 by five points after a rough weekend at Loudon where he wrecked his primary car in practice.
After starting 14th, Dillon capitalized on Larson’s problems during the race to enter the top 12 in points. He ended the day with an 8th-place finish, the first top-10 for the #3 team since the August Bristol race and the first at Dover. Points-wise, he edged out Tony Stewart for the final spot by just 11 points.
“It feels good,” Dillon stated. “It’s time to knock some more of these guys out, because we’ve got this opportunity, and I want to say that we’re going to be the underdog in this next round, so let’s go do it.”
The Rounds of 12 and 8 races. After squeezing into the Round of 12, Dillon’s hopes of advancing were quickly jeopardized in the first race of the Round of 8 in Charlotte. On lap 259, he and fellow Chase competitor Chase Elliott were collected in a crash as they came to the green flag. Dillon was relegated to 9th in points as he finished 32nd in the race. Despite finishes of 6th and 9th in the round’s later races, he was forced into a tiebreaker with Denny Hamlin to advance to the Round of 8 as both had the same number of points. Since Hamlin finished 3rd in the race, he was awarded the final spot in the next round.
The Round of 8 proved to be a disappointment for Dillon. After a 17th-place finish at Martinsville, he won the pole at Texas, but finished 37th after he was involved in a wreck with Kevin Harvick on lap 262. An unhappy Dillon stated Harvick “didn’t like it that the silver spoon kid was out-running him tonight,” alluding to Harvick’s words in 2013 about Dillon and his brother Ty being “punk-ass kids” who raced with a “silver spoon.” Dillon ended a frustrating Round of 8 with a 39th-place finish at Phoenix.
Dillon will look to build upon his Chase appearance with another in 2017. In addition to another Chase run, he also hopes to make a run for his first career Cup win, a goal that has eluded him since his rookie season in 2014, and become the 28th driver in NASCAR history to win a race in all three NASCAR series. All of his sponsors are expected to return, though Cheerios has not made an announcement regarding its plans for the future.
With his brother Ty joining the Cup Series full-time in 2017, the two brothers will join the Busch duo of Kurt and Kyle as the lone pairs of brothers running a full Cup schedule next season.
In addition to looking for his first win, Dillon will continue his hunt to become the first driver to win a championship in each of the top three series.
Featured image courtesy of John Raoux, Associated Press