TALLADEGA, Ala. -- NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. notched a career-best third-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday while another rookie, Austin Dillon, took a career-first flight down the track's massive backstretch on the final lap.
While running bumper-to-bumper, in third (Dillon) and fourth (Stenhouse) positions midway through the last lap, Dillon pulled his No. 14 Chevrolet low to keep cars in line behind him and as he pulled back in line, "we just met right there in the middle," Stenhouse said.
The impact turned Dillon's car around, and it launched after a hard collision with Casey Mears' Ford while the rest of the field rushed by for the checkered flag. Dillon drove the wrecked car back into the garage and emerged unscathed but with a 26th-place finish instead of what looked like a top-five.
"The 14 guys told me to bring back the trophy or the steering wheel and we were close to the trophy, but here's the steering wheel," said Dillon, who was on pace to record the best finish in the No. 14 since its full-time driver, Tony Stewart, has been sidelined the past 11 races with a broken leg.
"That was a lot of fun right there coming to the white flag at Talladega with a chance to win," said Dillon, who leads the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings. "I was going to push (Earnhardt) Junior and was just waiting till the end. They tried to make a move (behind) and I tried to block it and it just didn't work out.
"I've got to thank Tony Stewart. I've got to thank NASCAR for everything they've done for safety. That was fun. That was probably the wildest ride I've had here. We were going for it all there at the end."
Later Dillon tweeted: "That was fun, who needs skydiving."
For Stenhouse, the result was another testament to the progress he and his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford team have made. The third-place effort was his first top-five this season and his third top-10 in the last seven races after not having one in the previous 25 races this year.
And his six laps out front marked only the second time this season he's led more than two laps in a race.
More than that, Stenhouse was legitimately thinking win.
"We're trying to get the ball rolling here late in the season and that last lap there I was trying to hang back, tight in right where (fifth place) Paul (Menard) and I could either kind of get a run on the 14 and to the inside and see if we could make something happen. ? try to have a full head of steam for Dale (Earnhardt) and (race winner) Jamie (McMurray) coming down to three and four.
"I just didn't time it quite right."
The two-time Nationwide Series champ moved up to 19th in the Cup standings.
"I think our cars are getting better and everybody at the shop is all hands on, just trying to make our season the best it can be here at the end," Stenhouse said. "We struggled throughout the first half of the season, definitely more than I thought we should or definitely more than we wanted to.
"But we've learned a lot. I think we're getting better as a team and I'm learning a little bit more about what we need to do from practice to the race to make our car still fast throughout the race.
"It's been fun the last month or so and we just need to keep it going. Today was a great race for us ? and hopefully we can carry that on."
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