Dillon, Hornish neck and neck after Charlotte
October 11, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. spent the better part of 300 miles Friday night racing in close quarters, taking turns in the lead and defining the terms of their championship fight for the three races that remain in the NASCAR Nationwide Series season.
Even after driving a distance that could’ve taken the two to the Tennessee border and back, Dillon and Hornish left Charlotte Motor Speedway with their points margin exactly the same, a scant eight points.
Dillon wound up second with Hornish third as neither one could quite fend off race winner Kyle Busch in the Dollar General 300. But at the end, the two friendly rivals shook hands on pit road and left with a satisfying outcome in the big-picture view.
It was another night of hard-nosed but clean racing between the two, who have frequently seemed to be in close proximity to each other over the course of the 33-race season. But there were bittersweet feelings for both, despite sharing steps on the post-race podium.
For Dillon, he remained atop the Nationwide standings but remained winless in 2013 despite his third runner-up finish of the season.
"I haven’t won a race this year and feel like we need to, and there at the end, that’s what I was going for," Dillon said. "Somebody might come over the radio and say 'be smart' or something, but I kind of have my goals set already and I stick to ‘em. Hopefully my family members stay off the radio as much as they can and that helps sometimes."
Hornish led three times for a race-high 76 laps in the 200-lap event, and he soothed the harmful impact of consecutive 17th-place finishes in the previous two weeks with a pleasing rebound Friday night. But the contrasting irritation came in the form of being the victim of the race-winning pass for the lead by Busch with just eight laps remaining.
"It’s very frustrating to be leading with 10 laps to go and pulling away from the 54 car (Busch) and not be able to win," Hornish said, "but we never could get far enough ahead of the track to get our car right where we needed it to be. I had to work hard to keep the car underneath me there the last 10 laps."
By finishing ahead of all other Nationwide Series regulars, Dillon and Hornish achieved some separation from the rest of the pack. Regan Smith remained third in the standings, but his distance to Dillon’s perch now ranks at a stout 52 points.
Three more races like Friday night’s and the points battle will be a virtual stalemate, but Hornish said he’ll continue to focus within rather than train his gaze on Dillon’s efforts. In the meantime, Hornish said he can count on a mutual respect between him and the series front-runner.
"We’ve run around each other enough that we know that we’re going to see each other more than enough for the rest of the season," Hornish said. "Austin, in my opinion, is a good kid and he’s working hard to try to live up to a lot of expectations. He’s remembering to have fun at it, where sometimes I’m taking it a bit more seriously, I don’t know.
"But I appreciate the way we race each other and I think that’s going to be one of the more memorable parts about this, if we can race each other the way that we have so far. Win, lose or draw, I think we’ll both be happy with the way we’ve performed because we’re doing it the right way."