Everyone can take a breath. The NASCAR Nationwide teams get a couple weekends off before they tackle the last three events on the 2013 calendar. Starting back in late May at Charlotte, the Nationwide series went non-stop for 21 race weekends – essentially paring down the championship to just two drivers: Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr.
That’s quite a remarkable feat in itself because by the middle of summer, there were still 10 drivers capable of winning the Nationwide title. However, one by one, drivers were knocked out of the championship hunt. Still, just three weeks ago, five competitors were still in legitimate contention for the title.
Regan Smith is not technically out of the running as he currently is third in the points; however, being 52 markers back doesn’t bode well for the JR Motorsports owned Chevrolet. He was first in the standings for a couple months but only four Top 10s over the past 13 weeks has likely pushed Smith out of contention.
Sitting in the Top 10 all year, Elliott Sadler still appeared geared up to take a shot at the title as his Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) owned Toyota was third in points just two events ago. Nevertheless, a crash and resulting 36th place finish at Charlotte last week ended his quest for the championship.
Brian Vickers was also in the Top 10 all season and even up until two races ago, his JGR owned Toyota was a serious challenger. However, a 29th and 31st at Kansas and Charlotte, respectively, ended his pursuit of a second Nationwide championship.
That leaves Dillon and Hornish who are just eight points apart. The two have been in the top five for almost the whole year, while being front-runners – but in entirely different fashions.
Driving a Chevrolet for his grandfather’s team, Richard Childress Racing, Dillon didn’t have a great start to the year with a couple of finishes outside the top 20. Then from the Charlotte race in May, Dillon’s qualifying took off, grabbing six poles over a seven race period. The team’s efforts established himself as a contender for the championship even though Austin hadn’t won a single race. In fact, Dillon has yet to win this year. His ability to qualify in the front two rows portends well for the 23 year old heading into the last three events.
Hornish, who drives a Ford for Penske Racing, has been either first or second in the standings for all but two weeks of the year. He was a frontrunner from early on, grabbing the top spot in the standings to begin the year and winning Las Vegas in week three. The team stumbled a bit in the spring with three finishes outside the top 20 and then an engine problem at Indy dropped Hornish to fourth overall. However, he persevered with three top threes in-a-row, pushing him back up into the top spot. Except for Kansas two weeks ago, 34 year old ‘Sudden’ Sam’s qualifying has been on par with Dillon’s.
As the two head into the last three races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, how do they stack up to each other?
At Texas’ fast mile-and-a-half, Dillon has never finished worse than sixth in three starts. Hornish has raced seven times at Texas but never finished higher than seventh, so Dillon has the advantage in Ft. Worth. The one-mile at Phoenix has been relatively kind to Dillon who has three straight top sixes. Hornish won in 2011 and has a sixth and seventh over the past three events in the Sonoran Desert, making this comparison a wash. For the finale in Florida, Dillon has raced there only once, finishing fifth at the mile-and-a-half track. Hornish has improved every year he’s come to Homestead, including seventh and fourth the past two years – again, no real difference between drivers.
The two men may be going in different directions career-wise: Dillon is stepping up to Cup next year, while Hornish may not have a ride at all come 2014. If you’re looking for incentive, Hornish could be driving for his career, while Dillon hopes to notch another championship under his belt – he won the Truck series two years ago. Whether or not desperation on Hornish’s part makes a difference should play out as the season comes to an end.
Dillon has a slight edge but unless he can take advantage of his capacity to do well at Texas, this championship will go down to the last race. Motivation perhaps is on Hornish’s side but Dillon has a slight lead and the three tracks left give him a slim advantage. So what does this all mean? The Nationwide Series Championship will probably be decided in the final laps in South Florida.
Additional sources: Racing Reference