Dillon, Papis both pleased with balancing act
August 15, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Though NASCAR vehicles only have ignition switches unlike their street-legal brethren, you can almost imagine the swapping of front and passenger seats and the tossing of keys from Max Papis to Austin Dillon in handing over the wheel of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet this week.
“We don’t have the keys,” Papis said. “Actually there’s only one seat in the car.”
So much for dream sequences. Either way, the virtual handing over of the virtual keys from Papis last week at Watkins Glen to Dillon this weekend at Michigan International Speedway signifies a golden "pinch me" opportunity for both Richard Childress Racing drivers to shine in quality NASCAR Sprint Cup Series equipment, though neither relish the circumstances as substitutes while the injured Tony Stewart heals from injuries suffered Aug. 5 in a sprint car wreck.
The circumstances being what they are, the opportunity remains to carry the banner for Stewart and perhaps make a positive impression along the way.
“This is one of the coolest things in my entire life to have this opportunity,” Dillon said Thursday from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, site of Saturday’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Dillon currently leads the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings, but will be pulling double duty on the Sprint Cup side Sunday at Michigan.
“I think it’s very cool that they talked to my grandfather (Childress) first, and that was even more special for all the hard work that he’s put into my career,” he added. “I’m so excited. Just ready to get there and learn and be able to soak up all the information that I can with those guys who have so much experience.”
Papis can certainly share what it’s like to be a fill-in for the charismatic owner-driver after piloting Stewart’s No. 14 to a 15th-place finish at Watkins Glen. He’s also helped to smooth the transition from one substitute to the next in working intimately with the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
Even though Dillon is still learning, Papis was firm in pointing out that every opportunity afforded his teammate and road-course pupil has been earned and not ordained.
“Obviously going into the Glen, it was a very tough situation -- not on the technical side, but on the human side,” Papis said. “Think about it: All those guys who have been working for many years with Tony, then they’ve got someone else like me plugged in. I felt they did a really good job in keeping the atmosphere positive.
“In handing the torch to Austin, I think it really helped the fact that I spent a couple of weeks with them, and then know the relationship that’s with Austin -- me and him -- it definitely helped him to get up to speed and break that barrier that was there. What I told Austin is, ‘Look how far you came and how far I came, too.’ Getting an opportunity to drive for one of the best ever -- triple champion, winning team, championship team. How I look at it is that it should really shut the mouth of all those people that said that Austin gets his ride only because he’s the grandkid of Mr. Childress. That should prove that ability is what drove both him and me to that place.”
Before Dillon makes his 10th career Sprint Cup start, the more pressing task is holding serve with his Nationwide Series points lead in the inaugural race on the 2.258-mile road course. He leads hometown favorite Sam Hornish Jr. by just three points, and only 18 points separate the first five drivers in the standings.
Dillon has a best finish of ninth place in five career road course races in the Nationwide Series, but Papis suggests he’s getting better. Sure enough, Dillon was faster than the veteran Papis -- a competitor 11 times at Mid-Ohio -- in the early practice.
“I was really pleased to see the progress -- I call him my godson, only because I’m around him so much -- that Austin is doing,” Papis said. “I have to really step it up this afternoon because he was actually better than me. I’m really pleased to see that.”
Said Dillon: “We’re making some good progress that we needed for our road course program. I think both Max and myself have gotten our cars better and that’s going to play big for us when we get here on Saturday.”