Front pair in Nationwide standings now separated by just four points
Related: Nationwide Series point standings
DOVER, Del. -- He might not have been aware of the details, but the message repeated over the radio told Austin Dillon all he needed to know: Big picture, big picture, big picture.
With good reason. NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Sam Hornish Jr. had fallen two laps down after incurring a pit-road speeding penalty, opening the door for Dillon to cut deeply into the Penske Racing driver's point advantage. Dillon did just that, finishing sixth Saturday at Dover International Speedway to pull just four points behind Hornish in the standings with five races remaining on the schedule.
"Today was a day we could capitalize on," said Dillon, who entered Saturday 15 points behind. "Now we've just got to beat him for five races. Beat him straight up for five races, and we'll have the championship."
It’s the closest the Nationwide standings have been since early August, when Dillon led Hornish by three points following the event at Watkins Glen. While Sprint Cup Series regular Joey Logano was running away to victory -- in a vehicle inspectors would later deem too low in the front -- the greater drama was unfolding on pit road, where on lap 117 Hornish was flagged for speeding into pit road and forced to make a pass-through penalty.
The infraction dropped Hornish from 15th place to two laps down in 21st in what had already been a problematic event for the former Indianapolis 500 champion to that point. He had battled a loose race car that only got worse after an earlier two-tire pit stop, and then was finally hit with the penalty. It all added up to a 17th-place result that was his worst since he finished 34th with an overheating problem at Indianapolis.
"At the end of the day, the drive-through only cost us about four spots. The two tires is what hurt us," Hornish said. "We just need to be able to sit down, look at it and figure out how we need to be better. I feel bad for the guys, obviously, because we didn’t get out of it today what we could have. ... We'll move on to next weekend and figure out how to be better and not let it happen to us again.”
It all cracked a window of opportunity for Dillon, who lost a lap on lap 156 due to pit strategy, gained it back, and could ultimately only make up so much ground in an event that ended with the longest green-flag run -- 159 laps -- of any Nationwide race ever contested on the Monster Mile.
"Just a weird race, man, (with) 160-some laps green," Dillon said. "We had to make sure we could make it on fuel at the end, and we had some pretty good lap times. Car was a little loose. Fought a little loose condition all day. But up front, if we could have gotten our track position back, we were the fastest car taking off. So I'm happy with where we finished. Good points day. It could have been worse."
It certainly was for Regan Smith. The JR Motorsports driver, who led the points for 10 weeks earlier this season and once held what seemed a commanding 58-point edge, also appeared to be in position to take advantage of Hornish's problem and cut a chunk out of a 45-point hole. But Smith gave up third to pit with 17 laps remaining and fell to a 15th-place finish, and dropped one position to fourth behind Elliott Sadler in the standings.
It only served to reinforce what's now clearly a two-man race, with Hornish and Dillon separated by just four points and new third-place driver Sadler 42 off the lead in third. Smith is fifth, 43 back.
"I know that we've got five races to go and we go to some tracks that I really like -- Texas, Phoenix, Miami, Charlotte. There's not a place that I don't like that we're going to, so I'm really excited about what we've got," Hornish said.
"I also know that it's real easy to have a day like this where you make one bad call on pit road and then there's not another caution the entire rest of the race .... There was no time to make up anything. That's the tough part about running the Nationwide races is that you sometimes have to take chances that you wouldn't like to, because you're trying to stay ahead knowing you've only got 200 laps … We all know what the issues were, and we'll talk about it because whining about it now isn't going help us get our points back. Keeping our heads down and going out there and having a good race next weekend at Kansas is what's going continue to build the points lead back up."
Dillon was runner-up to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in last year's Nationwide event at Kansas, a finish that certainly fits with his goals going forward.
"Same mentality I've had the last three weeks -- top-five, top-five, top-five," Dillon said, "and I think it will win."