For Austin Dillon, 2018 got off to a rousing start. His momentum ultimately sizzled, but the 28-year-old driver pieced together another decent season and made it into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs for the third consecutive year.
Dillon qualified 14th for the Daytona 500, but would have to start from the rear of the field after going to a backup car. However, Dillon drove like a cagey veteran as he dodged chunks of carnage throughout the entire day.
In the closing laps, Dillon was chasing down Aric Almirola for the win. On the final lap, Almirola noticed that Dillon had a run, so he moved high to block the momentum of the No. 3 car. Dillon didn’t lift and made contact. This sent Almirola careening into the outside wall, while Dillon cruised to victory.
“Right now, I just want to thank the good Lord above. I did what I had to do there at the end,” Dillon said. “I hate it for the No. 10 (Aric Almirola) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona. This is so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane 20 years ago. This one is for Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and all those Sr. fans. I love you guys. We are going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year!”
Dillon would solidly finish inside the top-15 at Atlanta and Las Vegas. A couple of races later, Dillon found himself back inside the top-10 with a 10th-place effort at Auto Club Speedway.
The remainder of the first-half of the season would be a struggle for Dillon and his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team, as they would only record one more top-10 finish, which came in a ninth-place finish at Daytona in July.
However, the team had a potential top-10 car at Chicago. Dillon, who battled back from a lap down at the end of Stage 1, led 13 laps before eventually succumbing to a wheel hub issue on lap 190. Dillon would finish 37th.
“Our car was really solid and we were racing in the top-12,” Dillon said. “Shortly into the third stage, my foot went flat down to the floorboard when I pressed the brakes. We came down pit road, but it was evident we needed to retire to the garage. The entire right-front hub burned up and was on fire.”
The second-half of the season was much more consistent for the North Carolina native as he racked up five top-10 finishes. His best finish in this half of the season was fourth-place finish at Michigan in the Consumers Energy 400.
Dillon got off to a solid start to the Round of 16 in the Playoffs. He finished 11th at Las Vegas and sixth at Richmond, and it looked like he would have an outside shot of advancing to the Round of 12. Then, disaster struck at the Charlotte Roval.
Dillon wiped out in turn one on lap 66, which ended his day. Dillon would be credited with a 39th-place finish which would end his championship bid.
Over the final three races of the season, Dillon recorded finishes of 10th (Texas), eighth (Phoenix) and 11th (Homestead).
In total, Dillon racked up a win, two top-five finishes and eight top-10s en route to a 13th-place finish in the Championship standings.
Can Dillon secure a fourth-straight Playoff berth during Richard Childress Racing’s 50th anniversary season in 2019? I believe so.
Everything about the sponsorship on the No. 3 team seems to be staying intact for this upcoming season. Dow Chemicals will be back as a sponsor. Danny Stockman Jr., who led Dillon to championships in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series will be reunited with Dillon in 2019.
Justin Alexander, who had been atop the pit box since May of 2017 has been ousted.
The only change comes across the garage area for RCR, as Ryan Newman will be replaced by rookie Daniel Hemric in the second RCR team car. However, Hemric is a young talented racer as well, and his attitude and personality may gel better with Dillon than that of Newman.
Additionally, the team has had a full season and offseason to tweak the Camaro ZL1 body, which should do nothing but help the organization as a whole.
Although Dillon’s stats in 2018 didn’t suggest he was a true contender for the Cup Series championship, he did take another step forward toward being a more consistent contender. He also has had a knack for coming through in crown jewel events (his two wins have come at the Coca-Cola 600 and Daytona 500).
Expect Dillon to be very competitive at the superspeedways, but he is also sneaky good at Dover, Fontana, Michigan and flatter tracks like Richmond and Phoenix.
I see Dillon winning another race this upcoming season and I believe he will move on to – at least – the Round of 12 in the Playoffs.