By Dustin Albino

BRISTOL, Tenn. — When NASCAR made a social media post this weekend giving fans the opportunity to pick their ultimate dirt team with drivers divided up into categories and listed Austin Dillon at $4, it motivated him.

He raced like it on Sunday evening at the third dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

After winning his qualifying heat on Saturday, Dillon was awarded the second starting position. The No. 3 Chevrolet maintained its track position during the opening stage and finished second to Kyle Larson.

During the second stage, Dillon remained a frontrunner and had a hard battle with Tyler Reddick and Kyle Busch for the lead. At one point, he got into Busch, his Richard Childress Racing teammate, down the frontstretch. Once again, the No. 3 car placed second, earning 18 stage points for the evening.

“I thought we had probably the best car three-quarters of the race,” Dillon said after the race.

When nine cars stayed out at the end of the second stage, Dillon was mired back in traffic but made quick work through the field. At the end of the race, he was among the best cars, but couldn’t get by Reddick and Christopher Bell, who controlled the final stage after being one of the cars that stayed out at the end of the second stage.

When the checkered flag flew, Dillon placed third and tied Bell for the most points scored in the race at 52.

“It was huge for us,” Dillon said of his race. “Really wish we could have gotten the win. When the track moved all the way up, Tyler and Christopher did a better job getting there before I did. It took me a while to get used to it. I hit the fence and just got lost for a little bit.”

The third-place finish is Dillon’s first top-five effort since finishing fourth at Homestead-Miami Speedway last fall. Starting off the 2023 season, he finished runner-up at the Busch Light Clash exhibition race to Martin Truex Jr. In the season opening Daytona 500, he was in contention for winning his second Harley J. Earl trophy, though was committed to helping his teammate Busch. He wrecked out in the first overtime and finished 33rd.

Busch won the series’ next race at Auto Club Speedway while Dillon finished ninth. Until Sunday, that was the No. 3 team’s lone bright spot of the season, entering Bristol with an average finish of 23.3.

But with a third-place effort, Dillon is hoping his strong performance on Sunday is what turns the corner for the No. 3 team in 2023.

“We‘re trying to right the ship,” Dillon noted. “We‘ve been really disappointed with the last couple of weeks at the track. We‘re working hard; it‘s not lack of work from the team or myself. We just have to keep the ball rolling and this was great for us.

“Our teammate had some speed early on. We were both frustrated at Richmond. We‘re working hard at the shop to be those leaders that we were at the beginning of the year.”

The series heads to Martinsville Speedway next weekend where Dillon finished third last spring.

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