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Camaraderie reigns among Nationwide contenders

November 15, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Stenhouse Jr., Sadler and Dillon don't let championship battle affect friendships

The Nationwide Series championship has been wild and wooly all season, but the three drivers still contending for the title -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon -- showed up at Homestead-Miami Speedway for Saturday's season finale intent on playing it straight and narrow.

No head games or trash talking as Sadler and Dillon try to overcome a 20- and 25-point deficit, respectively, to reigning champion Stenhouse, who is trying to become the sixth driver in series history to win back-to-back titles.

" I'm so relaxed that I almost have to tell sponsors, 'I'm really focused on this, but this is how I like to be.'"


Dressed in a black cowboy hat and blinged-out belt buckle -- about five times the size of his car's Ford logo -- Stenhouse sat between his challengers during a nationally televised press conference Thursday, staring straight ahead and taking great pains to remind everyone how much he likes the guys flanking him.

"This year has been fun with these guys and now bringing Austin in,'' Stenhouse said. "Elliott and I the last two years have parked in the garage next to each other every week, and our teams get along, we fly on the same planes. If you don't get along, it makes for a long season."

The veteran Sadler, who finished runner-up to the 25-year-old Stenhouse last season, joined in on the Kumbaya.

"I think Ricky and I learned a lot about each other last year, parking next to each other, and it's a mutual respect," Sadler said. "I think he makes me better as a race-car driver, and I learned things from him and I think he learned things from me.

"It's been fun the last two years. ... I know my team, and I need to outrun them, and I think they know they need to outrun us, and that's the kind of relationship we've had the last two years. I think it kind of boils down to that."

To which Dillon couldn't resist.

"Yeah, I get along with both of them, but I hope it gets nasty on Saturday, personally,'' the 22-year-old rookie said with a huge grin. "I hope they door slam each other off of Turn 4 and I make it through the smoke.

"I'm actually waiting for Elliott to get back Ricky, which he owes him from Richmond and Bristol this year. I'm still trying to figure out when that's going to happen."

"First lap," Sadler joked, turning away from the microphone to smile at Stenhouse.

By all appearances, the friendly banter is not for show. Stenhouse spent Thursday morning before the press conference giving reporters rides around the 1.5-mile oval, which he claims is his favorite, noting the "cool palm trees" on the back straightaway.

He can clinch the championship with a finish of 16th or better and has an average finish of third in two previous Homestead starts.

For a guy with so much on the line, Stenhouse, who moves to a full-time Sprint Cup ride in 2013, insists he's never been more relaxed.

"We're running better, we're winning more races, we're in contention for another championship and our future is set. Heck yeah I'm more relaxed,'' Stenhouse said. "That's how I approach everything. I'm so relaxed that I almost have to tell sponsors, 'I'm really focused on this, but this is how I like to be.' I like goofing off. I don't like being uptight. ...

"For me there's no set schedule of what I need to do. There's no, 'I have to be really serious this weekend.' I am who I am."