Hornish Jr., Dillon are a surprising contender duo
November 14, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr. find themselves at opposite corners in the NASCAR Nationwide Series title bout. The two are also at differing stages of their careers, both with widely varied backgrounds and different futures.
The common thread for both, but for widely different reasons: Dillon and Hornish will each close the year feeling they have something to prove. In Saturday's season-ending FordEcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, each one will get their chance.
Dillon enters the final race of the year with a slim eight-point edge over Hornish, and the pair remain the only two mathematically eligible to hoist the Nationwide Series trophy once the sun goes down Saturday evening. Based on that alone, the two have already upended the odds and the preseason predictions over the course of the 33-race slate.
"It was pretty special that me and Sam came here, we're the only two left that the media chose to win the championship," Dillon said during Thursday's NASCAR championship contenders media day at the 1.5-mile track. "I don't think if you look back that me and Sam were at the top of the list. You're probably thinking about Brian Vickers, Elliott Sadler, Regan Smith. We knocked them out and now we're here."
For Dillon, it's been the story of his still-developing racing career. As the 23-year-old grandson of longtime team owner Richard Childress, he's heard the chatter from naysayers throughout his climb up the stock-car ladder that his place in the sport was pre-ordained through family privilege and not hard work and sheer talent.
Most recently, he heard the sentiment from Kevin Harvick, who assailed both of Childress' grandsons after an on-track tussle with his brother, Ty, during a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Martinsville Speedway last month. Harvick, who will leave Richard Childress Racing for the Stewart-Haas operation after Sunday's Sprint Cup finale, said then that, "they've got no respect for what they do in this sport and they've had everything fed to them with a spoon" -- scathing comments for which he later apologized.
In Dillon's eyes, that blow-up was just another chapter in his book, but adding a Nationwide crown to the story would add confidence for a driver who already claims to be "comfortable in my own skin."
"From the very beginning I've been tested," Dillon said. "It's nothing new. I don't think it's any more this year than the last year or the year before that or even the first year I started. Probably more the first two, three years when you're running go‑karts, Bandoleros and you show up to the track and it has an RCR symbol on the side of it. Every year it's been this way. I'm used to it. It's nothing to me really, nothing at all."
For Hornish, this season has represented his first down-to-the-wire championship battle since 2006, when he won the last of his three titles in the IndyCar Series. Since then, the 34-year-old Ohio native has tried to find his niche in stock-car racing, dropping to the Nationwide tour after three winless seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
He became a Nationwide Series winner in 2011, prevailing at Phoenix to cement full-time plans for the following season. But despite adding another victory earlier this year at Las Vegas and being in the thick of the title hunt, Hornish finds his racing career in limbo heading into this offseason, but still on good terms with team owner Roger Penske.
"He said at one point, 'Don't get too upside down about this, there's a lot of things that can happen,' " Hornish said about his potential plans, but adding that he had nothing new to report. "I'm like, 'RP, I'm still going to go out there and work to the best of my ability. We're going to work at it and try to do everything we can to win the championship.' "
While a first national series crown would certainly serve as a statement triumph, Hornish's body of work over seven seasons stands as a testament to his growth and experience. The uncertainty? Hornish said he's done his best to block it out and sharpen his focus -- focus he hopes will serve him well come Saturday.
"I try not to take that into the race car at all with me," Hornish said. "I try to focus on the task at hand, put all that out of my mind. It's not going to help me do anything to win a championship.
"On one hand it's very frustrating. On the other hand, I have had the opportunity to be in this sport long enough to prove to myself and other people what I'm capable of. It's a lot better than having it happen last year. I feel like it's not optimal, but I'm appreciative to have had the opportunities that I have. Hopefully there will continue to be more in the future."