More than 50 drivers applied to fill in for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Bass Pro Chevy, but when the selection process ended Austin Dillon had earned the nod.
Stewart-Haas Racing announced Monday that Dillon, the Nationwide Series points leader, will pull double duty this weekend at the NNS race at Mid-Ohio and Michigan International Speedway.
“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity that’s presented itself here at Stewart Haas,” Dillon said. “I just want to thank all the parties at RCR and Stewart-Haas for giving me this opportunity to let me go out there in a premier ride in the Cup series.
“We’ve had a great relationship with Bass Pro Shops and are looking forward to representing them and Mobil 1 this weekend. It’s a great opportunity for me. We’re really focused on the Nationwide Championship as well, and we’re going to give both parties a great opportunity at a win this weekend. We’re going to go out there and try to run strong.”
Two factors tilted the decision in the 23-year-old’s favor. In addition to his talent, Dillon has logged considerable laps on the two-mile Michigan track, including an 11th-place finish in June’s Sprint Cup race after qualifying seventh. In three Nationwide Series starts there, he has two poles and a fifth-place finish last year. He also finished fifth from the pole there in the 2010 truck race.
Bass Pro Shops owner Johnny Morris is a close friend of Dillon’s grandfather Richard Childress and continues to be an advocate of Richard Childress Racing in addition sponsoring the No. 14 Chevy. Morris fully understands the Childress family’s passion for all things outdoors.
“We went down through the list, saw who had track time, who was doing double duty and who would be willing to work out a schedule that would work out for both sides,” said SHR competition director Greg Zipadelli. “He has a strong relationship with Bass Pro Shop, and a big part of how we go through this is going to be making sure our partners are happy with what we’re doing as far as who we’re putting in the car and will represent their brand in the way that they want it represented there.
“There is a strong relationship there, and Austin did a great job in the past at Michigan. We felt like it was a good fit for this week.
From a logistical standpoint, the Nationwide and Sprint Cup weekend schedules conflict to some degree with Nationwide qualifying at the same time as Saturday’s Cup Happy Hour. But with a full day of practice at Mid-Ohio on Thursday and testing earlier this year, Dillon doesn’t believe his performance will be compromised.
“We’re working all of that out right now,” he said. “We’re going to be running both of them, and the scheduling is pretty tough this weekend, so we’ll be on doing our best to give equal amount of practice time. The good thing about Mid Ohio, we have a full test day there Thursday, so we’ll have plenty of time on the track. We have lots of sets of tires, and we’ll be using them up on Thursday.
“Qualifying seems to be the issue for the Nationwide race. That is the only part that will be tough. We might have to start in the rear. But I think we’ve done a good job of trying to work out where each party gets a good amount of practice on both cars.”
Dillon holds a three-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr. in the Nationwide standings. If running double duty affects Dillon’s title hopes, chances are he would have to step back and concentrate on the championship.
Zipadelli says Stewart has a doctor’s appointment Wednesday that should offer the company a timeline for the three-time champion’s recovery process. Until then, SHR will select a driver on a “week by week” basis. Max Papis’ 15th-place finish at Watkins Glen on Sunday enabled the team to maintain 11th place in owner points.
Zipadelli maintains the plan is for one or possibly two drivers to continue in the car until Stewart can return.
“I think that will give us some consistency, build some communication between the crew and the driver, and that will give us our best chance,” he said. “We’re working on some of that stuff now and hopefully we’ll see it. It may be more than two, maybe three or four. If that’s the case, we’ll look at each individual racetrack and see who is available that runs good at that racetrack and make the best choice we can.”