Trip to NASCAR playoffs "validation" for Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon has won some big races in his NASCAR Cup Series career but his victory in Sunday’s rain-delayed regular season finale may have been his most timely.

The race, which was postponed from Saturday due to rain and then had its own 3½-hour rain delay itself, was the last opportunity of the season for a driver to win their way into the 16-driver playoff field.

That was going to be the only way Dillon, 32, and his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team would get in this season as there were already 14 drivers in on wins and Dillon was mired in 19th in the series standings.

Yet, he did exactly that.

He escaped a massive wreck on Lap 138 of 160 to move into the lead, then following the rain delay he nudged Austin Cindric out of the way to grab the lead with three laps to go and held on for the win.

In the span of three laps, Dillon went from missing out on the playoffs for the second consecutive season to becoming the 15th seed.

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“I think every time you make the playoffs it's validation to yourself that you’re ‘one of the guys.’ You know what I mean?” Dillon said. “I think somebody said we’ve made (the playoffs) five times now.

“I don’t know how many years I’ve been doing this, but every time you’re not in it, it doesn’t feel good. You’re not going to the banquet at the end of the year. You feel like you let your guys down, you let your company down.

“For me it’s everything. It feels good to get a car that I felt like we should have been in earlier than this, but it doesn't matter how you get in, you got in.”

While Dillon has not led a lot of laps this season, he has been competitive and had a pair of runner-up finishes entering last weekend – at Auto Club Speedway and Talladega.

And he has typically been good at superspeedway races, having won the 2018 Daytona 500.

The debut of the Next Gen car this year has brought more parity, producing the largest number of different winners in the regular season since the playoff format was adapted in 2004.

“Fifteen winners or 16? That’s a testament to this car and Next Gen and how competitive the field is,” Dillon said. “I don’t think there’s any other form of motorsport that has this type of competitiveness week-in and week-out.

“You go to qualify at Watkins Glen, and from first to 20th, you look at the time sheet, and you are holding your breath for a hundredth (of a second) to move you up five spots.

“It’s what the Cup Series is supposed to be. It’s challenging. You never give up because that’s kind of what this year has told me.”

Staying grounded

Dillon, the grandson of RCR owner Richard Childress, said his family has helped keep him grounded through the ups and downs of this Cup season.

“If you lose the love for your sport, you’re not going to perform at the highest level,” he said. “You’ve got to find why you’re coming out here each and every weekend and doing it.

“For me, it’s family.”

Asked which one of his four career victories he believes has been the most significant, Dillon said, “I think the next one is. You know, that’s the next time. This is a big win. It’s, obviously, awesome, and I’m going to enjoy it and celebrate it and enjoy the fact that we’re going to get to go compete with the top 16 drivers.

“But it's the next moment, right? You have to look forward to that next one to really see where the company is at because this sport, you’re constantly being judged against the guy next to you.

“So, right now it feels really good. We came out on top. But we got 10 more weeks of this.”

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