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NASCAR Barometer: Dillon Wins Charlotte Fuel Mileage Battle

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2015 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Austin Dillon joined the list of drivers who won their first Monster Energy Cup series race in the Coca-Cola 600 after the team played their pit strategy to perfection Sunday night. Dillon stretched his fuel mileage to the finish, maintaining just enough of a gap over Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. to take his first win since joining NASCAR’s top series.

While Dillon’s win was the second for Richard Childress Racing this season, it means the Joe Gibbs Racing organization must wait another week to score their first of the year. Kyle Busch finished runner-up in a solid points night, but after winning the All-Star race two weeks ago, he’s wishing he could have had more. It was also another race that Truex lost due to fuel mileage, but his stage win and top-five finish will serve him well as he gets ready for the season-ending playoffs.

The series turns its attention to Dover International Speedway for this week’s AAA 400. Matt Kenseth won that race last season and Martin Truex Jr. won the fall edition. The Toyota-powered teams are sure to be among the favorites as they attempt to reel in Chevrolet and Ford.

UPGRADE

Austin Dillon – Charlotte marked Dillon’s first career Monster Energy Cup series win and the second this season for Richard Childress Racing after teammate Ryan Newman’s victory in Phoenix. The team gambled on fuel strategy and came out on top. The distance between him and the other top cars was enough to get to the finish after the final pit stops cycled through the field, and that left the team and him celebrating with the trophy at the end of the marathon night. Dillon now can focus on a trip to the playoffs this fall. Momentum is building for this organization, and it would not be surprising to see Dillon have more success while that trend continues.

Kyle Busch – Busch used the high line early Sunday evening to claim the first stage of the race. He was able to move his car around the track early to find where it worked best, and it was enough to put him out front in the lead. He was among the leaders for the rest of the night but came up short to finish second behind Dillon. The fuel gamble taken by the No. 3 team simply gave Busch too much distance to cover in the final miles, and the laps ran out before he could finish the job. His 2017 win will come soon, though. Busch has two Dover victories on his resume and finished second there last fall.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin landed his second stage win of the season when he claimed the third of four stages in Sunday’s 600-mile race. He held off a train of teammates to take the bonus, but pieced together a good race to put himself there by remaining inside the top 10 throughout the distance despite a pit penalty. Joe Gibbs Racing has made up some ground on Ford and Chevrolet, and fortunes through the summer and fall should land more in their favor than earlier this year. Hamlin scored two top-10 finishes in his two visits to Dover last season, and these small victories like stage wins will help build confidence and set up even bigger accomplishments in the near term.

Martin Truex Jr. – After dominating last year’s Coca-Cola 600, Truex had a bit more work to do on Sunday. The No. 78 was still a very fast machine, but it didn’t repeat the romp to victory from a year ago. Still, Truex won the second stage of the race after waiting out the rain showers, holding off Jimmie Johnson in the final laps. He had one of the best cars on restarts, and he used that advantage to stay solidly inside the top five all night. Truex has two Dover wins to his credit with the latest coming last fall when he led 187 laps, and they will continue to work on setting themselves up for a championship run after a successful start to the season.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Larson – A night full of expectation ended with multiple rubs against the wall for Larson. First, he slipped on fluid and slid up the track to rub the wall. That initial damage likely contributed to the trouble he experienced later in the third stage with a heavier hit. Larson showed significant speed in practice but was forced to start at the back of the field, and it proved to be a frustrating night for the championship leader. Larson continues to run well, however. He needs to overcome the mistakes that have cost him recently to get back into Victory Lane. That will take time, and Dover will be the first step on that journey. He led 85 laps in the spring race last year before finishing second.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski barely had a chance to get going Sunday night before becoming the victim of unfortunate circumstances. The Penske Racing driver had a car that appeared capable of competing for the win based on practice and qualifying times, but his night ended early when he slid on oil on the track and smashed into Chase Elliott’s machine. The incident was the final in a string of events that was initiated by Jeffrey Earnhardt’s engine failure. Keselowski was in the wrong place at the wrong time and his race ended as a result. He now must focus on next week’s race at Dover where he won in 2014 and collected two top-10 finishes last season.

Chase Elliott – Similar to Keselowski, Elliott’s night in Charlotte was over virtually before it began. The Hendrick Motorsports driver ran over debris from Earnhardt’s blown engine, which punctured a hole in his own car. That alone wouldn’t been terminal, except that Keselowski then collided with him as well. Elliott never had the chance to repeat what he was able to do in the All-Star race the prior week, and loaded up the truck early. Good luck continues to evade the No. 24 driver, but Dover may offer some hope. He finished third in both visits to the track last season, and needs to put last week’s disaster behind him to get back on track for his championship hopes.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney had a top-10 run going until late in the second stage when a rear axle broke following a pit stop. The car dropped off of the jack but had significant trouble pulling away from his box. The mechanical issue meant the team was able to return to the garage for repairs but any chance of salvaging that top-10 was long gone. Blaney was another driver who raised expectations for the 600-mile race with the job he did in the Open two weeks ago, but that promise was left unfulfilled. Blaney was able to capture a top-10 finish at Dover last spring but lost a tire and hit the wall in the fall. His average finish from those two races was 23rd.

Kasey Kahne – Kahne was involved in a bizarre situation where he lost the rear of his car and spun after fluid likely blanketed the circuit. He wasn’t the only car to run afoul of the conditions, and his car bounced its nose off of the wall. Damage from the contact made the rest of his race a futile effort, and his night was over. Kahne usually has good finishes when he visits Charlotte, which made the bad luck even more disappointing. He has been getting better finishes at Dover recently, though. He scored three top-10s in the last four races there, but has only scored one top-10 in the last four races after finishing 35th on Sunday.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Erik Jones – Jones scored his second top-10 finish of the season after a long night in Charlotte. His team battled with pit-road neighbor Jimmie Johnson throughout the night, and that could have put any other competitor off of their game. He also overcame adversity to not only finish the 600-mile race but score a top-10, too. It is hard to believe that finish was just his second top-10 since joining the series considering how fast he has been just about every week. This will be his first visit to Dover in Cup equipment, but he does have three Xfinity starts there with a win and a pole position. With more than 50 laps led in each of those tries he should be one to watch this week, too.