Stewart finds a kindred spirit in Dillon
August 13, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Similarities between the two drivers helped Stewart-Haas Racing make decision
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was special enough that Austin Dillon won last month's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, the sport’s first national event on dirt in more than 40 years, but what made triumph even more meaningful was when the track owner presented him with the trophy.
“Tony Stewart is one of my heroes," Dillon said Tuesday.
In that respect, then, it perhaps shouldn’t have been too surprising that Stewart-Haas Racing selected Dillon to drive Stewart’s No. 14 car this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, the second consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event the three-time champion will miss after breaking his lower right leg in a sprint car crash last week. The two are kindred spirits, a pair of former dirt racers who still compete whenever and wherever they can, and for whom July 24 at Eldora will be a night they will never forget.
"Tony Stewart is one of my heroes."
-- Austin Dillon
Stewart’s respect for Dillon, the current points leader in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, was evident in a text he sent the 23-year-old earlier this week:
“I’m glad I’ve got a good wheel man in my race car this weekend.”
When Stewart and Dillon tested trucks at Eldora in a secret session on the half-mile oval long before the NASCAR race there was announced, the three-time premier-series champion let his protégé be the first one out on the track.
“Every time I’ve gone to him to ask him questions, he’s always been very helpful. I think he respects my dirt background,” Dillon said at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where some of his Eldora mementos were put on display. “When we went the first time to Eldora together … he let me go out first. He wanted me to be the first one to hit the dirt. I thought that was very special. He’s always been very helpful to me and my career.”
Stewart broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa on Aug. 5, and is out indefinitely. Max Papis filled in last weekend on the road course at Watkins Glen in the No. 14 car, which maintains 11th place in the owners’ standings even though the injury has taken Stewart out of contention for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Monday, SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli, left open the possibility that Dillon could do more than one race in Stewart’s vehicle.
That would be just fine with Dillon, who holds a three-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr. in the Nationwide race, although the regular Richard Childress Racing driver understands he’d have to strike a balance between both series.
“I feel like I can drive everything, every day of the week," Dillon said. "The hardest thing is giving equal opportunity to both teams, and my guys are not discouraged that we’re not giving a full effort to them. Keeping both sides happy is big.
“I think my guys know I have plenty of confidence that I can do double duty each weekend. We’ll just take it one week at a time. I’d love to announce we’re going to do them all or something like that. But the biggest thing is taking it one week at a time and trying to give equal opportunity to each team. That main goal from the beginning of the season is winning that Nationwide championship. I think that’s very important. But things happen like this, and you have to take advantage of them.”
If Dillon does become a permanent solution for SHR, getting through this weekend might be the trickiest part. He’ll be at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, all day Thursday for opening practice at the first-year Nationwide venue, and then at Michigan all day Friday for Sprint Cup activities. He’ll likely miss Nationwide qualifying on Saturday because of a conflict with Sprint Cup practice. Dillon wasn’t sure Tuesday if his No. 3 team would put another driver in for qualifying, or eschew it altogether given that he’d still have to start at the rear.
“We’ve tried every kind of situation to try and qualify,” said Dillon, who tested at Mid-Ohio earlier this year. “It’s a little bit of a bummer for our guys on the Nationwide team, because they want to qualify, but they understand the situation we’re in and the opportunity that’s there. We’ve all embraced that we can win from starting last at a road course. We now have to take that as a challenge and take it on and make it a positive.”
As for the Sprint Cup event, he’s aiming for a top 15. Dillon has made nine career starts at NASCAR’s highest level, with a best finish of 11th at Michigan on June 16 in the No. 51 car of Phoenix Racing. He’s also won two poles at the two-mile facility in the Nationwide Series. Although Zipadelli said Monday that Dillon’s relationship with sponsor Bass Pro Shops played a role in the decision to put the former Camping World Truck Series champion in the No. 14 car, there’s also clearly a comfort level with the race track.
“That’s the best place for me to go after a good finish,” Dillon said. “I’ve got a lot of laps there.”
Dillon spent Monday at the SHR shop meeting with the No. 14 crew and having his seat put into the car. He told crew chief Steve Addington to set up the vehicle “however you think is fastest,” he said.
“I don’t want anything to do with it. I just want to drive it. Tight or loose is all I’m going to give him, and we’re going to go after it and work hard.”
Dillon texted with Stewart on Monday, and planned to call him later Tuesday to discuss strategy and how the car drove at Michigan the last race there, where Stewart finished fifth.
“I don’t think speed will be a problem,” Dillon said. “It will be just driving around these guys and figuring out what it takes to get it to the front.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has the confidence of the team owner. Dillon and Stewart have had a rapport ever since an indoor go-kart event they both competed in several years ago in Indiana, where Dillon led until the final laps -- when he was spun, and saw Stewart whiz by. That connection was certainly bolstered at Eldora, where the former Camping World Truck Series champion returned to his dirt roots to win at Stewart’s track.
Some artifacts from that night -- a jar of dirt from the track, the trophy and the No. 39 truck Dillon drove, still with the front right dented and Bear Bond covering the right rear -- were put on display Tuesday for a limited time at the Hall of Fame. Dillon kept his own jar of dirt, as well as the checkered flag and a golden shovel he was awarded as the race winner.
“As much as I could take, I took,” Dillon said. “I’d have taken a piece of the wall if I could.”
That’s how strongly Dillon feels about Eldora -- and about Stewart, down deep an old-school racer a lot like the 23-year-old driver he’s putting in his No. 14 car this weekend.
“Anytime a guy wants to race every night of the week,” Dillon said, “I think that’s awesome.”