Austin Dillon won the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a night that ended with lots of joy and plenty of controversy, too.
Dillon’s familiar black No. 3 Chevrolet Camaro — which is owned by his grandfather, Richard Childress — not only wasn’t the fastest car in the field, it didn’t even run well enough for him to finish in the top 10. Dillon ended the night 12th, which is pretty much where he ran all race long. It was his worst finish since Richmond in early September, but it was enough to give him a final margin of 3 points over Sam Hornish Jr., who wound up eighth in his final ride in the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford Mustang.
“This is another championship with a 3,” said Childress, who was team owner for six of the late Dale Earnhardt’s seven Sprint Cup championships, all with the No. 3. “Austin won it with a 3 in the Truck Series (in 2011). I remember before that race was over, I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Old pal, we need you.’ I did that again tonight. He came through.”
But it wasn’t easy.
Hornish was ahead of Dillon for virtually the entire race, with the night’s defining moment coming on Lap 183 of 200, when Regan Smith triggered a big wreck on the backstretch, drifting up into Jeremy Clements and Mike Wallace coming out of Turn 4.
Inexplicably, NASCAR did not red flag the race, instead running under caution from Lap 184 until Lap 195, with Hornish third and Dillon fifth. That played into Dillon’s favor in a big way, as even though his car wasn’t handling well, there were so few final laps under green that he didn’t have to worry losing the points lead.
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton defended the decision not to throw the caution.
“It really looked like it was going to be a typical cleanup, a typical wreck,” said Pemberton. “You know, you had two cars that had a lot of damage and both of them dumped quite a bit of oil. There was no need to throw a red.”
That was cold comfort to Hornish’s team owner, Roger Penske.
“I felt very sorry for Sam,” said Penske. “I have to say I’ve never seen a race that was so important that you wait 15 or 16 laps before you have five laps to go. To me that was very disappointing from the standpoint of the fans. Certainly we as competitors, we came out fine. But when I think about it, it could have gone any way.”
Asked if he thought he would have won the championship had the race been red-flagged, Dillon said, “God is great. It would have worked out great either way.”
Maybe it would have, maybe it wouldn’t, but it’s a moot point.
Once the track finally went green, Brad Keselowski went from 10th to first in the final five laps to secure his seventh victory of the season. Keselowski passed Kyle Larson on Lap 198 to win the race, with Kyle Busch third, Matt Kenseth fourth, Trevor Bayne fifth and Joey Logano sixth.
The finish gave Penske Racing the NASCAR Nationwide Series owners’ championship for his No. 22 Ford by a single point over Kyle Busch Motorsports, with Ford Motor Co. sewing up the manufacturers’ championship.
“We weren’t poised for a win,” said Busch, who is closing his Nationwide operations due to a lack of funding. “We were going to have to earn it and we didn’t do that."
And it was Dillon who was crowned champion, despite going winless on the season. He is the 24th different champion in series history, earning 13 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes on the season.
“We fought,” said Dillon. “My guys kept me positive in the car. I just knew I had to go on that last restart. I’ve been criticized on restarts for a long time, but that was a pretty good one. I just hung up against the wall there and tried to ride it out. Thank goodness for this AdvoCare Chevrolet and everybody that helped us. My grandfather (Richard Childress) and my whole family are so supportive. My team is the best and this is amazing. We showed tonight that you never give up.”
Childress’ first Nationwide entry came way back in 1995 at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. The driver then was Dillon’s father, Mike Dillon.