While Austin Dillon had a fast car and showed speed throughout the weekend at Michigan International Speedway, a broken valve spring under the hood of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in final practice sent him to the rear of the field for Sunday’s race after he had qualified fourth.
Still, the sophomore driver and veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe were not deterred and confident they could get back to the front of the field — and that is just what they did.
Pitting under the second caution of the day on Lap 11, Labbe put his driver on a different pit strategy than the rest of the leaders. So when the rest of the field came to pit road during the competition caution on Lap 22, Dillon stayed on the track and took the lead for the first time of the day.
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With a fast No. 3 Chevrolet, Dillon was able to remain at the front of the field and contend for the lead with eventual race winner Matt Kenseth for much of the rest of the day. When the tire changer got hung up on the right front tire on the final stop of the race, Dillon dropped three spots with less than 40 laps to go.
However, Dillon was able to get by Denny Hamlin for fourth with less than 10 laps to go. When Kenseth took the checkered flag for his third win of the season, Dillon crossed in that position for the best finish of his Sprint Cup career.
"We started dead last and to come back to where we qualified, that means a lot," Dillon said on pit road. "I’m proud of my guys. We got the track position we needed and were able to stay up there. I had a good car. The Dow Chevy was fast and I could get down on the bottom and dig there for a couple of laps. We’ll definitely build on that and come back with something better next time."
The No. 3 team has certainly turned things around since Slugger Labbe took over the role of crew chief at Sonoma Raceway in June. Since then, Dillon has one top five and three top-10 finishes.
"He’s been awesome," Dillon said of his veteran crew chief. "He’s given me my confidence back. It’s been nice to work with him."
For Labbe, it is important to let his driver focus on the task at hand and let the team take care of the rest.
"The main thing I tell him is not to worry about the race car, let us do that," Labbe told FOXSports.com. "We give him a lot of information that he needs to study — EFI data, Dartfish, all the things that are important to him. He hasn’t been at the shop a whole lot, and I tell him Monday through Thursday stay at home, rejuvenate, get hydrated and get his body back right and let us do the work. He’s trusted us. My style is a little different than most. I’m an old-school racer like Tony Gibson (Kurt Busch’s crew chief) and others. Whatever we’ve got working is going well for both of us."
With the motor issue popping up in the closing moments of Saturday’s final practice, Labbe knew it would take a different pit strategy to gain track position and climb from the back of the field.
"Today, starting 43rd, we’re leading the race by Lap 22. It was pretty neat," said Labbe. "We were up late last night studying the strategy and looking at the scenarios. As you can tell, we studied really hard because we took some chances and it worked out in our benefit. Just an awesome car all weekend."
Currently outside of the top 16 in the Chase standings, Dillon is peaking at the right time but both he and Labbe know it is going to take a win to ensure a Chase berth. Despite the strong runs as of late, Dillon is still behind winless drivers Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Kyle Larson in the standings.
"We’re showing some speed that’s solid for us the last couple weeks to be able to compete if we were in the Chase. That’s nice to know," said Dillon. "I just wish we could have started this just a little bit earlier, but we’ve got a couple good races left for us. Really looking forward to Bristol. We run third there with four to go and ran out of fuel. So if we can go to Bristol and compete, I think we can win there. I’m definitely looking forward to that race."
Knowing what is at stake, Labbe promises to do all he can to put the No. 3 in Victory Lane and into the Chase.
"We’ve got three races, man. We’ve got to win. That’s the bottom line," said Labbe. "Today’s fourth place was good for confidence, but we’ve got to win a race if we want to make the Chase. I can promise you the next three weeks I will give this kid everything we’ve got."