Austin Dillon keeps calm, carries on in playoff fight with teammate
Eagle-eyed NASCAR watchers know that most prominent drivers have a personal logo. They’re usually found on their fire suits or above the driver’s side window of their race cars.
Austin Dillon’s logo is the Ace of Spades. But as the Cup Series heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course this Sunday (1 p.m. ET, NBC), Dillon is trying to recover from some bad hands - before it’s too late.
Following the June 20 race at Nashville Superspeedway, Dillon was 14th in the Cup playoff standings with a 108-point cushion above the cut line.
But then Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick picked up the pace - and the points - to eventually close in on him.
Entering the July 18 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Dillon was 15th in the standings. He was 104 points above the cut line, but only eight points ahead of Reddick in 16th.
That was critical since whoever was on that 16th-place bubble would be knocked out of playoff position if someone behind the cut line won a race.
Naturally, Aric Almirola did just that at New Hampshire. And with Almirola being 27th in the standings, his victory wiped out Dillon and Reddick’s respective cushions.
Reddick left New Hampshire five points up on Dillon for the last playoff spot. Last week at Watkins Glen, Reddick extended that lead to 15 points after earning seven stage points on his way to finishing 10th.
The head-to-head battle between teammates will play out over the last three regular season races - or could be cut short if another driver on the outside looking in pulls an upset.
On top of all that, Dillon has never finished better than 11th or led a single lap in 20 career Cup starts on a road course.
And yet, he’s not fretting.
“I’ve been pretty calm, really, about it,” he said earlier this week in a media teleconference. “I know the situation I’m in. It’s unfortunate the amount of winners that we’ve had this year. I feel like we’d be well in a safe place right now, but we’re not. It’s just the situation we’re in, and we’re racing our teammate.
“But I’m pretty confident after being on the (simulator) a couple of weeks at Indy. I usually don’t pick-up the road courses on the simulator very fast, but for some reason, Indy came to me pretty quick, which is good, I think, for what we’re going into.”
Dillon has his eyes on qualifying, which takes place Sunday morning (9:05 a.m. ET, CNBC) ahead of the race later that afternoon.
A solid starting position could yield important stage points early in the race, which is the first for the Cup Series on Indy’s 14-turn road course.
“We have a 15-point gap right now and if we can maintain or gain a little this weekend, I feel like the next two weeks (Michigan and Daytona) are good tracks for us and we’ll be in a pretty decent situation going into Daytona, if it is a points game,” he said.
“Obviously, I’d like to lock ourselves in with a win and just don’t want any new winners. That would really put us out.”
Not necessarily. There’s always Daytona, which closes the regular season Aug. 28 and provides one last shot to make the playoffs.
Dillon finished third in this year’s Daytona 500. He won “The Great American Race” in 2018.
Of course, Dillon would prefer to win on Sunday or next week at Michigan to take the pressure off.
But if that doesn’t occur, Daytona could be the ace in the hole for the man that carries the Ace of Spades.
“That gives the confidence to you as being the last race of the year,” he said on the subject. “And the situation I am in right now - I think I’ve been in other situations down the road, it would probably be more stressful. But for me, we’re in a little bit of a nothing to lose attitude right now because we’ve got to gain on our teammate, and if not, we’ve got to win somehow.
“So, Daytona is that place and it gives us an opportunity with our ECR horsepower. I don’t know. We’ve just had the ability to keep that No. 3 at the front when we go to Daytona. I like it. It’s a magical place, and I’ve had some great runs there. I’m pumped that it’s the last race of our regular season.”