BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For Austin Dillon, it was a return to normal -- in more ways than one.
One week after a doubleheader weekend in which the Richard Childress Racing driver also wheeled the Sprint Cup Series car of injured three-time champion Tony Stewart, Dillon turned his focus back solely to his Nationwide Series duties, and he recorded a third-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway that made up most of the points loss he withstood on the road course at Mid-Ohio.
Dillon overcame a slow pit stop to finish as the top Nationwide regular Friday behind winner Kyle Busch and runner-up Brad Keselowski. In the bigger picture, the 23-year-old took full advantage on a night when most of the top Nationwide championship contenders battled problems, jumping back up to second place in the standings.
"It was big," Dillon said. "Car was unbelievable. This car was just a rocket ship. ? We had bad pit stops. We really got behind early and we fought our way back up through there. I'm happy with our team. As far as getting our car faster from practice, we really worked on it to turn the center, and man it could. I had a blast out there tonight. We could really pass, so it was fun."
Dillon entered the night fourth in points, and taking some criticism for a substitute effort in Stewart's vehicle that forced him to forgo Nationwide qualifying at Mid-Ohio and start in the back. The ensuing 21st-place finish tied his second-worst of the season and dropped Dillon from two points in the series lead to 15 behind new leader Sam Hornish Jr.
Friday, troubles on behalf of other title contenders allowed Dillon to regain much of what he had lost. Hornish had an issue with a spark plug wire and finished 12th. Elliott Sadler struggled with his car all day, fell a lap down early, and finished 10th. Regan Smith had a loose wheel on a pit stop and wound up 21st, four laps down. And Brian Vickers was in the top 10 when his car snapped lose and slammed into the vehicle of Parker Kligerman, dropping Vickers to 34th place.
"Unbelievable luck lately," tweeted Smith, the points leader as recently as last month, after the race. "Fast car again. I will promise two things: there's zero quit in this team and this championship is far from over."
Dillon made the most of the chaos surrounding him, and the standings after the race reflected it. The RCR driver left Bristol in second place, and six points behind Hornish. Sadler is 11 back in third, Smith 24 back in fourth, Justin Allgaier 39 behind in fourth, and Vickers now 40 back in fifth heading to Atlanta next weekend.
"I could see that they were having a little bit of trouble," Dillon said on pit road, his helmet traded for his trademark cowboy hat. "I hope we do this the rest of the year. Our oval stuff is very competitive. We've got to get Kyle Busch out of Victory Lane, and it will be a fun championship."
Crew chief Danny Stockman Jr. was also well aware of what was going on around his No. 3 team, and opted for a conservative strategy late in the race.
"I didn't want to have a late caution and have a misfire with the fuel not getting picked up," he said. "I knew we had a good enough car to at least get back up to where we were running. I kind of wish we had a late-race caution there. I think we could have made it interesting. But it was definitely a good night, a good points night, and we've just got to keep knocking these finishes out like this."
Mid-Ohio was a rare bobble for a driver who had moved into the points lead by virtue of a consistent stretch that included six poles and seven top-10 finishes over the course of the summer. Stockman said the team needed a rebound like Friday night.
"Most definitely," he said. "We knew that 10 percent of the races were road courses, and we put a humongous effort as a team into our road course program after Road America. We built a brand new car and dug in deep and tried to find some speed, from the engine shop to the chassis shop to the body shop, everywhere. And we had a really good car last week. Obviously had to start in the back, and not very much fun, obviously. But we still drove up to the top 10 and just had a little incident there on the last restart. Otherwise I think we would have had an OK day. But otherwise, we're looking forward to the ovals here."
Which is what they'll get from here on out. There's something else certain, too -- no regrets on Dillon's part for taking on the extra workload last weekend.
"We've got a great team," Dillon said. "We had a full test day (at Mid-Ohio), and felt like we could figure out a pit strategy to get us up there, and we did. We had an unfortunate pit stop there, too. We've got to work on our pit stops. I'm going to help these guys during the week go practice and just really work on them. I'll help them as much as I can."
Stockman refused to blame last week's shortcoming on Dillon piloting Stewart's car, which he'll also do later this year at Talladega. Dillon managed a 14th-place finish in the Sprint Cup event at Michigan.
"We work together as a team," Stockman said. "We talked about it. It's just what we thought he needed to do. At the end of the day, we're not going to think about that anymore. We're moving forward, that's behind us. We're six points out of the lead now, and I think everybody better hold onto their hats here, because we're coming."
Given his driver, an appropriate metaphor indeed.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Sports & Recreation
- Motor Racing
- Kyle Busch
- Austin Dillon
- Tony Stewart