Dynamite at Daytona: Dillon delivers first career top-five finish

Austin Dillon enjoyed a solid Sunday at The World Center of Racing.

If Austin Dillon loves Daytona International Speedway, there’s certainly no reason to hold it against him.

After sending the NASCAR world abuzz by winning the pole for February’s Daytona 500 in the return of the iconic No. 3 car to NASCAR’s top series, Dillon went on finish a solid 10th in The Great American Race.

The next 16 races produced nary a top-10 finish for the Sprint Cup rookie, however.

The site of that long-awaited occasion?

Photos: Pair of crashes wreaks havoc on Coke Zero 400

Daytona, where Dillon came home a career-best fifth in Sunday’s rain-shortened Coke Zero 400.

"It’s huge for us getting a top-10, a top-five," said Dillon, who has lagged behind fellow rookie-of-the-year contender Kyle Larson for most of the season’s first half.

"It definitely can change the rookie race. We’ve got some momentum now. We’ve got the last four races, I think, in the rookie race, and just stay consistent and hopefully we can come out with this (rookie title). Our cars have been really fast all year, and we’re getting better each week. I feel like we’re gaining a little bit, and I’m excited about that."

One of the biggest keys to Dillon’s successful Sunday at the World Center of Racing was simply avoiding two major multi-car incidents — the first on Lap 20, the second on Lap 98 — that incurred damage to two-thirds of the 43-car field.

"We just made it through the wrecks," Dillon said. " … Everybody up front at the beginning was swapping ends and didn’t look good, and we made it through the first one, and then the second one hanging out there down the backstretch, and my teammate was in front of me, and he checked up, and I checked up; I kind of just shot the middle and they went left and got lucky. I saw Jamie (McMurray) flying through there. That was crazy."

Aric Almirola wins rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 in No. 43 car

While Dillon was pleased to finish well, he wondered aloud what might have happened if rain hadn’t forced NASCAR to call the race official with just 112 of 160 laps completed.

"I think me, Brian (Vickers) and a bunch of the guys right there would have loved to seen it go back, but it’s racing," said Dillon, a former Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series champion. "It’s part of it. We’ve been here for a while and would love to go back, but that rain has been tough to deal with all weekend."

With Sunday’s finish, the grandson of legendary team owner Richard Childress moved up into the last position among those who will make up this year’s expanded 16-driver Chase Grid that will compete for the Sprint Cup title over the final 10 races.

Understandably, the Lewisville, N.C., native is feeling more confident about the direction of his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team.

"You know, we’re hanging in there," Dillon said. "Just want to find some more speed at these mile-and-€‘a-€‘halfs, get more consistent. Kentucky was a good race for us; just didn’t make a good adjustment at the end. Experience will come with that, I hope, and like I said, I feel like our cars are getting better, and we’ve been really harping on that as a group at RCR to make our cars better, and I think we’re starting to show."