He didn’t win a race in 2013. He didn’t lead a lap in Saturday’s Nationwide Series-ending Ford EcoBoost 300. Yet Austin Dillon still drove granddad Richard Childress’ iconic No. 3 Chevrolet to a championship.
Dillon overcame a poor-handling car early and benefitted from a late 12-lap caution to finish 12th, four spots behind pole-sitter and championship contender Sam Hornish Jr. at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hornish, who began the race eight points behind Dillon, ran in the top five for most of the 200 laps. The three-time Indy Racing League champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner, Hornish was only able to shave three points off Dillon’s cushion.
“This is another championship with the 3,” said an emotional Childress, who watched the late Dale Earnhardt win six Cup Series titles in RCR’s black No. 3. “Austin won it with the 3 in the truck series. I remember before that race was over I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Pal, we need you.’ I did that again tonight and he came through.”
A four-car crash produced the evening’s 10th and final caution. The cleanup took longer than anticipated and three re-start attempts were waved off. The green flag finally came down with five laps to go.
Sitting third at the re-start (four spots ahead of Dillon), Hornish dropped to ninth over two laps. During that same span, Brad Keselowski with fresh tires propelled his No. 48 Ford from 10th to first and out-ran Sunoco Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch. The win was Keselowski’s second Nationwide Series victory here in two years and seventh of 2013.
“It almost felt like a video game passing 10 or 12 cars in two or three laps,” said Keselowski, who joined Busch as the only drivers to win multiple Nationwide races at Homestead-Miami since the track was reconfigured in 2003. “I had to see the replay because I didn’t even know what happened. I just know I was on the gas and pointing forward. I knew we were going to win the race or I was going to bring back the steering wheel. With five laps to go that’s the only attitude that can win the race.”
Keselowski, Hornish and Joey Logano among others contributed to Roger Penske winning the owners’ title. Penske was disappointed the race wasn’t red-flagged, which would have given Hornish a better shot at the championship.
“It was hard for me to believe we’d sit there for 15 or 16 laps with so much at stake, not only for Sam but for Dillon, for Ford and Chevrolet,” Penske said. “I’ve never seen a race that was so important that you wait 15 or 16 laps before you have five laps to go.”
Saturday marked the first time in the history of any of NASCAR’s top three tiers that a driver claimed a championship without winning a race. Dillon, who is graduating to the Cup Series in 2014, had 13 top-5 finishes. He placed in the top 10 a total of 22 times, including in seven of his last eight runs.
At the re-start following the eighth caution with 41 laps to go, Dillon was running 17th and trailed Hornish by four points in the standings. By Lap 168, Dillon had picked up eight spots and drew back even with Hornish.
“It was ugly the way we did it, but we showed we had heart and are never going to give up,” said Dillon, 23, who in 2011 won the Camping World Truck Series championship. “We gave ourselves a chance and it worked out for us.”