Posted: 11:47 am Wednesday, May 31st, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Now that the fizz from that refreshing big drink of Coca-Cola has settled, what does Austin Dillon’s maiden Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win mean? Is it the turning point or floodgate opening for becoming a weekly contender? Or was the fuel mileage gamble that saw Dillon milk his No. 3 Chevy to the finish line, as Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel a fluke? Either way, Dillon’s first victory and at his Charlotte Motor Speedway hometrack no less makes for two Richard Childress Racing entries in the 16-team 2017 playoff.
Dillon showed in 2016 that he could drive into contention almost every week. He could have made the third round of the playoffs, if not for getting wrecked on a restart in the 2016 fall Charlotte race. He came close to winning Pocono, a race that Chris Buescher ironically won on fuel mileage and rain. Buescher’s win for Front Row Motorsports truly was a fluke – he stretched fuel at the behest of crew chief Bob Osborne and gambled that rain would end the race with him up front. Buescher normally ran outside the top 25.
Dillon, meanwhile, has seen a downturn in his 2017 results. He entered Sunday’s race 21st in the points with only one top 10 finish. RCR decided to let go his crew chief “Slugger” Labbe, the No. 3 head wrench since June of 2015, and replaced him with Dillon’s Xfinity Series crew chief Justin Alexander. Their first race out of the box saw them consistently in the top 10 in the Coca-Cola 600 and on the cusp of a chance to win after the final pit stop.
Kyle Busch should have won the race. He was not in fuel-saving mode and passed race-dominator Martin Truex Jr. with a few laps to go, as they bore down on Johnson and Dillon. If Johnson had saved fuel well or long enough, he would have won his 9th-career Charlotte race and 5th 600. Dillon not only saved fuel well, he ran well enough all evening long to give himself a shot. The 27-year-old ran well at Charlotte at last fall, but botched a restart and got wrecked, thus taking himself out of position to win.
No, in the end Austin Dillon’s win is not a big game changer. Richard Childress Racing is not running with the A-cars. But Dillon, in his fourth year in the legendary 3 car, simultaneously saved enough fuel, closed in on Johnson to put pressure on the seven-time champ, and held off the fast and well-fueled Busch and Truex Jr.
Casey Mears won the 2007 Coke 600 on fuel mileage, which is still his only Cup win to date. Dillon’s teammate Paul Menard’s only Cup win was a fuel mileage triumph in the 2011 Brickyard 400. Wins don’t always open the door for more, but for a team that is on the upswing, they can.
Kyle Larson, also in his fourth year in the MENCS, finally won Michigan last August. Since then, he has only won once, but he has also become a weekly contender. He followed up that 2016 win with a 3rd and 2nd place finish and ended the season finishing near the front when he didn’t wreck or have trouble. Larson led the standings entering the Coke 600, before wrecking, on the strength of four runner-up finishes, some stage wins, and his Fontana win. Larson seems to be racing with more confidence each week and is backing up the uptick in the Ganassi equipment’s performance.
Now that Dillon has won and has a crew chief he seemingly meshes better with, he can soar to greater heights and with less pressure, if his cars get quicker. The No. 3 looked fast Sunday night – faster than it has at any 1.5-mile track all year – and Dillon capitalized. This could be the beginning of prosperity to come for Dillon, but let’s not write that story in stone, until we see more.