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Hornish, Dillon separating from the pack

September 14, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Hornish, Dillon separating from the pack
As the season dwindles, Hornish and Dillon seem to be each other's biggest competitor

JOLIET, Ill. -- Following Saturday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway, Austin Dillon pulled onto pit road and parked his car right behind the vehicle of Sam Hornish Jr. The championship in the Nationwide Series may be coming down to the exact same arrangement.

Top-five runs by Hornish and Dillon, combined with more misfortune on the part of other title hopefuls, continued to distill the season-long Nationwide championship hunt down to a two-man race between a former Indianapolis 500 champion and the driver in the cowboy hat.

Although Kyle Busch dominated Saturday -- he led 195 of 200 laps, most ever for the series on 1.5-mile track, breaking the record of 194 set by Dale Earnhardt at Charlotte in 1986 -- Hornish came home third and Dillon fourth, continuing what’s quickly becoming a head-to-head battle both on the race track and in the standings. Hornish now leads by 17 points over Dillon, with their next-closest pursuer 19 points further behind.

“I think so,” Dillon said when asked if the title race was coming down to him and Hornish. “It’s going to take a mistake from one of us to switch it up. If he makes a mistake, we’ll be there.”

Hornish isn’t so sure. “There is still a long time to go. What, seven races? A lot can happen,” he said. “We have to be smart about how we run it, and all those things. One flat tire can lose you a bunch of points.”

The splintering of what was once a close five-man race for the title continued Saturday due to incidents that kept any other drivers from making up ground on the lead. Regan Smith entered Saturday in third, 26 points back, but Justin Allgaier bounced off the wall and into the No. 7 car, sending it spinning through the grass. The resulting 13th-place finish left Smith 36 behind Hornish.

Elliott Sadler fared worse -- he came in 28 points behind Hornish in fourth place, but after getting hit from behind by Brett Butler suffered a 19th-place result that left him 44 points back. Brian Vickers finished sixth Saturday and jumped a spot in the standings to fifth, but remains 56 points behind.

For the moment, it’s Hornish and Dillon and everyone else.

“Definitely, I feel that way,” said Dillon’s crew chief, Danny Stockman Jr. “It’s about consistency theses days, right? You can’t be tearing race cars up. You have to be working on a steady program every week, and when you get to the race track, knowing what you’ve got. The 20 (car of Brian Vickers), the 11 (car of Sadler), the 7 (car of Smith), those guys are fast. They’ve had a lot of bad luck this year. I never look back, I’m always looking forward. Right now, I feel like the guy we have to beat is (Hornish), and we’re going to go after him next week at Kentucky.”

While other contenders stumbled Saturday, Hornish and Dillon kept up the pace at the front. Hornish ran second behind Busch for a long stretch, but low tire pressure had the splitter of the No. 12 car nearly dragging the ground. Buy the time the Penske Racing crew corrected it, teammate Joey Logano had overtaken Hornish for second place.

Dillon was in the mix as well, and at one point tried to muscle past Busch on the high side, but to no avail. Still he showed plenty of speed, particularly at one point where he swooped low on track to pass Hornish and Logano for second. But his No. 3 car got tight as the race neared its end, and Dillon settled for fourth.

“Man, it’s just tough,” Stockman said. “It’s as simple as a quarter-inch of track bar or a round of wedge. That’s how close you’ve got to be in these races to beat these guys. We just need to be a little bit better at adjusting our cars at the end, and that’s where we’re getting beat, is making our car for that last stint. We just were too tight there. Am I happy with running fourth? I’m feeling a lot better than last week. But we need to be better as a team for the last stint.”

Trying to catch Busch, en route to his 10th Nationwide victory this season, only made it that much more difficult. “I don’t know what the 54’s got,” Dillon said, referring to Busch’s car number. “It’s unbelievable. He’s so fast. Just drives away. I mean, clean air is big, but I don’t understand. He can pull me 10 car lengths after that. It’s pretty impressive, and he’s a great driver, ands it was fun being up there racing with him at the end.”

As it was with Hornish, evident by the fact that Dillon walked over to the No. 12 car and stuck his head inside after the event was over. “Good race,” he told Hornish. He could have been talking about the championship battle at large, which the two drivers have waged while maintaining a mutual respect for one another.

“Austin and I continue to try to race each other clean, and I feel like we have a great battle going. At the same time, it is extremely clean. If he asks me a question about what I am doing, especially at a place like Watkins Glen where he asked me a couple questions about how to help him, I didn’t have any problem helping him out a little, and I probably still wouldn’t at this point in time,” Hornish said.

“The way we have raced each other is a good thing. I would like it to be settled as much by who is the fastest and most consistent, as opposed to one of us having their way with the other one. The way he has treated me in the past, we should be able to do that. We should race it out and see who wins this thing.”

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