Austin Dillon will have an unparalleled opportunity this weekend.
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For the first time in his NASCAR career, Dillon, 23, will be able to showcase his talents with a championship-caliber team, as he drives the No. 14 Chevy at Michigan Speedway.
Dillon was selected Monday from more than 50 applicants to fill in for Tony Stewart, who continues to recover from a sprint car wreck on Aug. 5.
After shaking down his car at Mid-Ohio on Thursday, Dillon, the Nationwide Series points leader, focused entirely on qualifying Stewart’s Sprint Cup car Friday. He was 16th-fastest (200.518 mph) in the first practice — ahead of his fellow Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Ryan Newman (19th) and Danica Patrick (24th).
When it came time to qualifying 27th (199.983 mph), Dillon acknowledged he left speed on the track.
“I’m comfortable in the car,” Dillon said. “I tried to get a little too much right there. I got really tight in (Turn) 1, just over-drove the car, but trying to get some — get a good starting spot.
“But it pays more on Sunday, so we will go out there and have a good run on Sunday.”
That’s what Stewart-Haas is banking on, too. Dillon finished 11th here in June, but qualified seventh for that race. Still, he’ll have a top-caliber crew to pit the car, which should ease some of his concern.
“Austin has run here before, ran here in the spring and did a good job,” said Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing. “He was willing to come here today and give us 100 percent because they had the test day (Thursday), which kind of made all the difference as far as making this work for us.
“We’re certainly excited about getting on the race track, getting all this stuff kind of behind us and doing the best we can this weekend.”
Dillon will forego Nationwide qualifying to practice again with the No. 14 Sprint Cup team on Saturday morning before taking a helicopter to Lexington, Ohio for the NNS race at Mid-Ohio. Although some might find it challenging to drive from the back of the field to the front — particularly on a road course, on which Dillon has two top-10 finishes in five NNS starts — Dillon doesn’t seem daunted by that task or by substituting for Stewart on Sunday.
“I want to be able to win hopefully Saturday,” Dillon said. “From 43rd to first is something that is tough to do, but I feel like with all the strategy and things that are going to play out during that race — I think it’s going to be a pretty wild race. Going to the inaugural race for Mid-Ohio … there are some blind corners and some elevation changes and some really slow corners where people are going to make up ground, and mistakes are going to be made.
“My goal always is to finish laps in these races, and that will always bring positions to you. I’ve been able to be pretty successful at finishing a lot of laps in my career. I think trying to put ourselves in position at the end of the race to get a top-15 (in the No. 14) would be great. We do that by being there at the end. That’s what I feel like we’ll try to do in the Nationwide race.”
Joey Logano understands the pressure of replacing Tony Stewart. At 18, he became the driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing when Stewart left to start SHR. Although Logano has since moved on (he posted his first career Cup pole for Penske Racing on Friday with a record-breaking lap of 203.949 mph), he believes Dillon’s maturity, talent and time spent in the public eye will help make the transition easier.
“I feel like he can do a good job, and he showed some speed in practice,” Logano said. “He has run a few Cup races in the 51 car and some in a RCR car, so he has always had the spotlight on him.
“Ever since he started racing trucks, the spotlight has been on him. He is used to that. I don’t think it bothers him. It didn’t bother me too much — it is more a fact of how you run, and we will just have to wait and see. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ran well at all. I think he can do it.”
Martin Truex Jr. apparently is excited about the pre-race entertainment at Bristol Motor Speedway next week:
"@HankJr is set to perform for all of his rowdy #NASCAR fans prior to @IRWINtools Night Race”
13th — track record set with the Generation 6 car.
6th — front-row start for Kurt Busch, who rolls off second.
22 — races since Joey Logano won a pole — in his final start with Joe Gibbs Racing at Homestead. His pole-winning lap of 203.949 mph was the ninth-fastest speed in NASCAR qualifying history.
Brad Keselowski says that racing Kyle Busch conservatively at the end of last week’s race at Watkins Glen race was just part of his strategy.
“I don’t want you to be able to predict me,” Keselowski said. “That is a weakness. I am unpredictable. Maybe this time I will hit him. Maybe next time I won’t. You never know.”