By Dustin Albino

The first three months of the NASCAR season haven‘t been kind to Austin Dillon. He‘s buried 31st in the championship standings, 15 points below Chase Elliott, who missed six races due to an injury. 

Dillon hasn‘t gone unscathed himself. The No. 3 team was issued an L1 penalty for having illegal underwing components, and they were penalized 60 points following a 12th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway last month. Even without the penalty, Dillon would be just 24th in points. 

“We just have to get the momentum back going our way,” Dillon said earlier this week. “I really felt after the dirt race that was the thing that triggered us. At Martinsville, we fought hard for that 12th-place finish and things went awry since the NASCAR penalty.” 

Late in the Daytona 500, Dillon was in position to potentially win his second Daytona 500, though he was committed to first-year teammate Kyle Busch, who was looking for his first triumph in the Great American Race. Dillon wrecked in overtime and finished 33rd, earning only four points.

The No. 3 team earned its first top-10 finish of the season at Auto Club Speedway, a race in which Busch dominated late and cruised to victory, his first with RCR. Over the next four races, Dillon had four finishes of 27th or worse. The highlight was a mere 16th-place run at Phoenix Raceway. 

Growing up as an avid dirt racer, Dillon was strong at the Bristol dirt race, tallying 52 points and finishing third, only behind Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick. But in the three races since Bristol, Dillon has the aforementioned 12th-place effort at Martinsville, a DNF at Talladega Superspeedway, as he was caught up in an incident and 27th at Dover Motor Speedway after wrecking in the opening laps of practice. 

“I‘m not in a dire situation,” Dillon noted. “I feel like we‘ve built fast cars and I‘ve shown speed at different tracks this year. Speed enough to get it done.” 

This weekend‘s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway is a race Dillon pointed out of possibly turning the ship in the right direction. In 19 starts, he has a handful of top-10 efforts at the mile-and-a-half track, with an average result of 13.5 in the two races last year with the Next Gen car. In 2021, he had a pair of 10th-place finishes. 

“I think Kansas is another place that we will circle to see if it can get us back on track,” Dillon said. “It‘s a mile and a half, a little different type of racing than we‘ve been doing lately. We just have to keep fighting. With the way the cars are, if you hit it right and get the right opportunity, you can win. 

“For me, that‘s the biggest thing, we have to win. We‘ve got to get in there with our teammate and win a race and start to build for the playoffs.”

With five top-10 finishes in the first 11 races of the season, Dillon noted that Busch and the No. 8 team is doing its job. He was in the right position at the right time at Talladega and capitalized on the win, his first on a superspeedway in 15 years. 

Dillon believes his team can find comparable speed, as he‘s working with Keith Rodden for the first time as a crew chief this season. Rodden will return to the pit box this weekend at Kansas after serving a two-race suspension for the Martinsville penalty. 

[The No. 8 team has] executed well and I think we can do the same thing,” Dillon said. “It‘s been close for us. We started off the year at The Clash with some great speed. Daytona, we were sitting in a place to win and could have done things a little different there at the end. It‘s just how it played out.

“We could have had the same shot that the No. 8 did at Talladega, but was caught up in the mess. Things happen.”

Known as a driver to pull through in clutch scenarios — Dillon had a walk-off win at Daytona last August to qualify for the playoffs — the No. 3 team has an average finish of 22.1 through 11 races. That‘s on pace to be the worst of Dillon‘s full-time career at the Cup Series level.

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