Richard Childress Racing driver survives with Nationwide points lead, but his pursuers gain ground
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Considering all the obstacles he overcame in Saturday’s Zippo 200 at The Glen, Austin Dillon will take his 12th-place finish and three-point championship lead and high tail it to next week’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race in Ohio. Thank you very much.
Dillon’s No. 3 AdvoCare Chevy fought a fuel cell problem all day and had to dodge a close call racing for position midway through the event on the winding 2.45-mile road course through the scenic Western New York countryside.
So after a short post-race debrief with his team, Dillon emerged from the Richard Childress Racing team hauler wearing his signature cowboy hat, breathing a sigh of relief, and feeling like perhaps he got away with one.
Meanwhile, his closest challengers in the Nationwide Series standings were standing by their cars on pit road. Four of the top-five finishers Saturday are ranked among the top-five in the championship, and only 18 points now separate Dillon and fifth-place Brian Vickers, who finished third Saturday.
Saturday’s runner-up, Sam Hornish Jr., nearly erased Dillon’s 14-point lead heading into the race and is now second in points, three back. Fourth-place finisher Regan Smith is now ranked third, only five points behind Dillon. And Elliott Sadler, who finished fifth, remains fourth in the championship but now trails by only 12 points instead of the 19 points he trailed before Saturday.
“Our goal was 10th, we finished 12th, two positions out of that,’’ Dillon said. “Last year we ran 23rd here or something crazy like that and were 30 points out of the lead. Now we’re three points in the lead so I’m happy with it.
“Other than the fact we had a problem with our fuel cell we could have finished 10th, we lost a lot of time with that.
“We’ll go to Mid-Ohio and figure out what’s wrong with our fuel cell and we’ll be fine. I think (that track) is a more level playing field.’’
It’s been a high-pressure, rising-stakes kind of season for these title contenders -- an honest and gritty championship battle not just for the rankings but also for the race wins, week-in and week-out.
You could see it on their faces as the drivers climbed out of their cars Saturday afternoon. A quick glance at the car behind and in front testified to the closeness of this competition. No one is running away with anything.
There have been three different points leaders in the last five weeks alone.
“It’s as tight as it’s going to get,’’ said Smith, who sat atop the standings only three weeks ago. “And if you ask any of us, we anticipate it being this way right to the end. Every position is going to matter.’’
No one disagreed. “Look at everybody the way they are running, four of the top-five guys today are running for the championship,’’ said Sadler, who has only two finishes worse than ninth in the last three months in his No. 11 OneMain Financial Toyota.
“It’s good race car drivers, great race teams, pit crews. ... and it’s going to be a heckuva championship battle all the way to Homestead. I don’t really see anyone pulling away from anyone else because we’re going to different tracks that are stronger for different people and I think it’s all going to even itself off by the time we get to Homestead.’’
The series heads for its debut on the historic Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course next week. And Hornish, who led the points for eight weeks -- including the first seven -- says he’s still not quite of the mindset to take crazy chances for big points gains. He fully expects it to be close-quarter racing from here on out.
“I think you take the chances when you’ve got the car to do it,’’ said Hornish, driver of the No. 12 Penske Truck Rental Ford. “Today, I felt like this was a great opportunity for me to get a couple extra points and try to get the win, so I pushed hard to try to make it happen.
“But it’s really about. … minimizing your bad days. That’s really been our Achilles’ heel this year. We haven’t had any mediocre ones (races). They’ve either been really good or really bad. Our bad days need to be a 15th-place finish and not a 35th.’’
For Dillon, still looking for his first Nationwide victory in 2013 despite having won won a series-best six poles, consistency and tempered strategy seem to be working.
And he said Saturday he’s feeling better about his chances with each week. If only the others didn’t feel the same.
“Our motto this whole time is these two road races can lose us the championship, but they can’t win us the championship,’’ Dillon said.
“Next weekend we’ll have a more level playing field and we have speed at these other ovals we’re going to and those are the ones that will decide if we win the championship.
“It’s good. It’s tough competition and we’ll separate the men from the boys here shortly. We’re getting close to the end of this thing and we’ll see how we do.’’