Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Runner-up finish, inspiring motto give Austin Dillon a boost in Darlington playoff opener

Austin Dillon has shrugged off a share of adversity, critics and social-media backbiters over the course of his career. This season, that approach gained a motto that has become a rallying cry: FIDO — Forget It & Drive On.

Dillon gave another shrug to any notion he’d be an easy out in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs on Sunday night, finishing a strong second place in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Dillon’s slick throwback No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet — a tribute to NASCAR legend Junior Johnson — pressed eventual winner Kevin Harvick down the final stretch, nearly snaring another prestigious race for his portfolio of Cup Series wins.

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“Well, it’s a great feeling. You know, it’s confidence,” said Dillon, who notched his third top five of the season and his best finish at the historic South Carolina track. “Confidence goes a long way in this sport, and I think everybody knows that. It’s a streaky sport, too. You see guys get on runs and they’re able to really carry themselves with those. I’m hoping this is kind of our go time, that our streak is starting.”

Sunday brought a rejuvenating finish, but the start was less-than-promising, with an early share of hardship before the engines ever fired. The No. 3 crew realized pre-race the front tires were mounted on the wrong sides; changing them was deemed an unapproved adjustment, forcing Dillon to drop to the rear of the field during the pace laps.

“I don’t know how it happens. It’s just a mistake,” Dillon said, noting he likely would’ve lost control if the miscue had gone unnoticed.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Dillon methodically worked his way back up to 15th by the conclusion of Stage 1 despite a severely worn tire before his first green-flag pit stop, then to eighth at the end of Stage 2. When Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott tangled while battling for the lead with 13 laps to go, it moved him up to second with new leader Harvick in sight ahead of him.

Dillon’s pursuit of the top spot managed just incremental gains but put him close enough to get within a couple of car-lengths through the final set of turns. He was just .343 seconds back at the checkered flag.

“Second place is so close,” Dillon said, noting a bittersweet quality to flirting with his fourth Cup Series win. “I’m going to be thinking about those last 20 laps for a long time. Man, it would have had a lot of people talking if we stole another crown jewel. I think they are talking. I think there’s a lot of respect either way.”

The team’s entire 2020 mindset has some deeper roots. The ‘FIDO’ mantra stemmed from RCR’s season kickoff luncheon, where Marine 1st Lt. Patrick “Clebe” McClary — a Medal of Honor recipient and motivational speaker — delivered an inspiring message. McClary lost his left arm and left eye in combat during the Vietnam War but continued to fight and lead his troops.

The message of not giving up stuck for the No. 3 team, and Dillon has used it to continue to press forward as the season heads to its most crucial time.

“I think it really hit home for me because I’m a fiery guy and I can dwell on things too long instead of moving on, and that acronym is just an easy reminder,” Dillon said, “like hey, man, it’s over; there’s no need to play it back or wonder why we’re in the situation we’re in; it’s just get the most out of everything that I can.”

As for the doubters?

“I feel like — I love to compete,” Dillon said. “I am just a competitor, know what I mean? You tell me I can’t and I want to show you that you can in any kind of sports. Me and my dad will literally get in about fisticuffs over a pickleball game this week. I battle. I like to battle and grind things out. That’s why I’m good at the longer races I believe because mentally I keep working, I keep working.

“As a team, I’ve got a team that’s behind me that believes in me, and that’s all I need is the confidence from those guys. We’re in a good place.”