Crash takes spotlight, Dillon takes points lead
October 05, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- As a throng of people descended onto pit road following Saturday's Kansas Lottery 300, Austin Dillon climbed out of his pink No. 3 AdvoCare Chevrolet and stood there unencumbered.
The television cameras rushed past the new NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader to focus their lenses on Kyle Busch, whose late-race tangle with Brad Keselowski provided the final fireworks in a race full of twists and mistimed turns.
Dillon was hardly unassuming in his pink firesuit and pink-rimmed black cowboy hat, but the 23-year-old driver had a rare slice of time to himself following his sixth-place finish at the Kansas Speedway. He spoke with team owner and grandfather Richard Childress, smiling a smile rarely seen after sixth-place finishes, as the scoring pylon behind him flickered out Sam Hornish Jr.'s finish -- 17th.
"A sixth-place finish is great for us," said Dillon, who entered the day trailing Hornish by four points and exited it up eight. "We're the points leader, and that’s awesome. We have to keep on doing what we've been doing the past couple of weeks, and that's gain points and maintain our top-five finishes."
It's been quite a stretch for Dillon to catch Hornish, who grabbed the points lead following a third-place finish at the Mid-Ohio race in mid-August. In the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford, Hornish rattled off three top-five finishes in a four-race stretch from Atlanta to Kentucky before consecutive 17th-place showings over the past two weeks allowed Dillon to close the gap and eventually surge into the lead.
Starting from the Coors Light Pole, an 11-caution race wrecked the No. 3 team's strategy and sent Dillon on a voyage that saw him drop as low as 25th place. A left-front tire that continually blistered forced Dillon's team to take more tires than his opponents, so he routinely lost ground on pit road.
Dillon reassumed the lead on Lap 100, but he lost ground on multiple late restarts. He was ninth with 20 laps to go, but benefited from the final caution -- on Lap 189, when Busch drilled Keselowski from behind.
"We didn't want to race like that. We had a car we thought we could run up front with," Dillon said. "Just, the left-front kept blistering throughout the day, and we had to change our strategy quite a bit. We had to keep putting on tires, putting on tires, and it hurt our track position."
Dillon's ascension in the standings wasn't a lock until Hornish Jr. slapped the wall following a Lap 150 restart. Two races ago at Kentucky, Hornish Jr. got loose and brilliantly saved his car en route to a fourth-place showing. He couldn't keep it off the wall in Kansas, though, and that slapper sent him from seventh place, just behind Dillon, to 13th.
"It was one of those days," Hornish Jr. said. "We were racing hard at the end and we freed up the car a little too much. I asked them to free it up and then I ended up getting into the wall because of it. That's my bad."
Hornish has four races to make up the eight-point deficit, but Dillon has been among the most consistent Nationwide drivers during the stretch run. In the past seven races, Dillon has three top-fives and three top-10s -- two of those top-10s are sixth-place showings. His only finish outside the top 10 during that stretch is a 12th-place effort at Richmond.
The strategy -- and goals -- aren't changing now that Dillon holds the points lead.
"No, it's going to be the same thing as we've been doing," he said. "Top-fives, top-fives, and if they can beat us with us getting top-fives from here on out, then good on them."
Throughout the season, Dillon has bemoaned his missed opportunities at winning races. He won twice in 2012, and has seven Coors Light Pole awards this year -- and two runner-up finishes.
That sting is assuaged now that Dillon is running P1 on the path to a championship.
"It won't mean nothing if we don’t win it at the end of the year," Dillon said. "That big trophy is what we want."
Then he paused, and flashed that sixth-place smile again.
"A regular trophy would be nice, too."