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Dillon, Whitt forge friendship amidst competition

March 09, 2012, Jill Erwin,

LAS VEGAS -- ROY contenders come from different backgrounds but find common ground

In terms of NASCAR experience and history with the sport, you'd be hard pressed to find two more opposite drivers than Austin Dillon and Cole Whitt.

One is a legacy driver driving for his legendary grandfather's team in a car bearing the iconic No. 3. The other is a driver with 33 national-series starts in NASCAR who found his ride for this year in late December and is still largely figuring out his way around the garage.

"He's pretty cool and he's been really nice to me."


But under the intense spotlight that comes with battling for the Nationwide Series rookie title, the two have formed an unlikely but fruitful friendship based on age, background and current standing in the sport. The two are also quickly staking claim to being the leaders of the next generation of Nationwide stars.

"He's obviously made a name in this sport," Whitt said of Dillon. "He's pretty cool and he's been really nice to me. I'm fairly new to this sport and he's been in the sport his whole life, so it's two different perspectives. At the same time, we both come from a little bit of a background, so I think that's pat of why we get along so good.

"Hopefully me and him are the only two who battle this out, because I feel like if I don't deserve it, he does. Hopefully we'll have some fun with it."

Dillon doesn't disagree. He knew from the get-go it was going to be him and Whitt as the top contenders among those with full-time rides.

And so it has been. True, it's only two weeks into the 34-race season -- and neither will hesitate to mention how early it is to be making grand proclamations -- but the two are both in the top four in the Nationwide points standings. Dillon finished in the top five at both Daytona and Phoenix, joining points leader Elliott Sadler as the only two competing for the series championship to accomplish that feat. Two spots and eight points back is Whitt, who rallied after a 13th-place finish at Daytona to come home fourth at Phoenix.

"I think we'll have to race Cole all year long, both in the points and in the rookie of the year battle," Dillon said. "It will be interesting to see how we separate ourselves throughout the season. Hopefully we keep a good battle to the end of the season, but I think the No. 3 can come out on top."

Dillon is coming off a Camping World Truck Series championship, and Whitt is moving up to Nationwide after finishing third in the Truck rookie battle in 2011. Within the battle brewing between them is one bit that levels the playing field: They're both learning the Nationwide Series.

Prior to this season, Dillon made 11 series starts; Whitt had three. Whitt had never cracked the top 10, while Dillon finished at least that high four times.

So while one has grown up in the sport and the other is something of a Johnny-come-lately, the learning curve is similar for both.

"We're used to taking big swings in the race car with the truck, and the Nationwide car takes very minute changes," Dillon said of his crew chief, Danny Stockman, who moved up with him. "I think we learned that in Phoenix. We're still learning and we still have a lot to learn and that's why I feel like we're going to have a good season.

"We're rookies and we're learning so it can really only go up from here. It's been a good start; we just need to keep it going."

Sam's Town 300

Practice 1
2.Mark Martin178.453
3.Ricky Stenhouse Jr.178.141
4.Cole Whitt178.130
5.Brian Scott177.778

Dillon credits Stockman for knowing exactly the feel the driver wants in the car. Whitt doesn't have that luxury. His deal with JR Motorsports came together just before the end of the year and so he and crew chief Tony Eury Sr. are still in the beginning stage of relationship-building.

"We struggled a little bit [at Phoenix] with the car; just me and Pops [Eury] need to get more on the same page," Whitt said. "We just need to keep working with each other. This is a new team and our deal came together pretty late, so me and Pops are just trying to get on the same page."

The two reached a certain level of comfort in the Truck Series but are somewhat starting over while their rivalry continues within the new series. Both have noticed the diversity of the Nationwide Series as well as their places within it.

"You've got young guns and then guys who are also kind of hanging on in the sport," Whitt said. "That's what it's been known for. Being a young driver, you're running against a lot of veterans but you have to deal with a lot of ... I don't know what you'd call it, but it's kind of like ... egos, I guess.

"You've got the old guys trying to push the young guys around, and then you've got the guys who were here for one year and now they feel like they're kind of on the edge of the rookies coming in and they've got to outrun you.

"So you've got a lot of guys that for some reason when you get around them, they seem to run harder. They let someone go by, and then you're there and you show them your nose and they're chopping you or whatever it may be. You've got to earn that respect and just kind of race hard."

For Dillon, he's not as concerned with those in the other cars as he is the driver in his car and the man on his pit box.

"Communication-wise, Stockman and I are still working together trying to figure out stuff," Dillon said. "If we can get it down to a science like we did in the Truck Series, then we should be able to go out there and run like we did in the Truck Series."