HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – With tears in eyes and three fingers in the air, Richard Childress hardly had words to describe his latest NASCAR championship.
His grandson, Austin Dillon, won the Nationwide Series title in the famed No. 3 and by three points.
“Hard to believe,” Childress said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Austin. He drives with his heart every lap. What can you say? He’s just a great competitor, a great grandson. I’m proud, really proud of him. He ran good and hard tonight.”
Sprint Cup regular Brad Keselowski of Rochester Hills won the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday, moving up 10 spots in the closing few laps to give an otherwise typical race a wild and wacky finish.
But the night belonged to Dillon, who overcame a sluggish start and a scrape against the wall to finish 12th. It was good enough to hold off Sam Hornish Jr. by three points. Hornish crossed the line eighth.
“It was ugly,” said Dillon, who won the Truck Series title in 2011. “Probably the worst car we had all year. But we fought. My guys kept me positive in the car.”
Hornish looked as if he would overcome an eight-point deficit in the standings for much of the 200-lap race, but a lengthy caution late posed problems. NASCAR slowed the race for 12 laps – tied for the longest caution of the year – and it turned out to be a setback for Hornish.
He dropped from third to ninth on the final restart with five laps to go, ending his chances at getting a title in what was his final race for Penske Racing.
“I felt very sorry for Sam,” Penske said. “And I have to say I’ve never seen a race that was so important give away 15 or 16 laps before you have five laps to go. To me, that is very disappointing from the standpoint of the fans and (us) as competitors. When I think about it, it could have gone either way.”
NASCAR defended its decision to keep the race under caution.
“When you’re in situations like that, the most important thing is getting the track race ready,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “You know, you can look at, you can use your hindsight every chance that you want to, but in this particular time, we did the best we could to do, and it was more important to get the track ready.”
Keselowski got new tires during the final caution and used them to weave his way through traffic. He went from 11th to first in a two-lap span after the restart. And once he was out front, no one was catching him.
Certainly not Dillon and Hornish, who were stuck on old tires because they had used their allotment.
“I don’t even remember what happened,” Keselowski said. “We were going to win the race or I was going to bring back the steering wheel. With five laps to go, that’s the only attitude that can win the race. Sometimes you make it through, sometimes you don’t. Today we did. A lot of aggressive moves.
“It almost felt like a video game passing 10 or 12 cars in two or three laps. That’s what you’ve got to be able to do to win at this level.”
Keselowski finished the season with seven victories, all in the last 10 of his 16 series starts.
Rookie Kyle Larson finished second, followed Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Trevor Bayne.
Hornish and Dillon had nothing for the leaders down the stretch.
Having worn tires made passing difficult, if not impossible, in the final few laps. It didn’t help Hornish that Kyle Busch spun his tires on the restart.
“Couldn’t get far enough ahead of those guys who had taken four tires,” Hornish said. “That’s how it worked out for us tonight. We gave away points throughout the season, between the driver making mistakes, from everybody on this team making the car better. We win as a team, we lose as a team. Just needed a little bit more.”
Keselowski’s victory wasn’t the only thing to celebrate for Penske Racing. The team won the owners’ title for Roger Penske – edging Joe Gibbs Racing by a point – and landed Ford the manufacturers’ championship. Joey Logano finished sixth in the title-winning No. 22 car.
“We had four goals coming in here: win the manufacturer championship for Ford, help Sam win the driver title, win the owners’ title and then win the race. We got three out of the four,” Keselowski said. “Sam did a great job, even though he didn’t get the fourth one done. He did an awesome job, and I’m really proud of his effort.”
But the biggest celebration was saved for Dillon, whose fondest memory as a kid was seeing late NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt win the 1998 Daytona 500.
Dillon knew all he had to do was stay close to Hornish.
“I knew if I could see him and see where he was, then I wasn’t going to give up all the way to end,” Dillon said. “He was a great competitor. Sam, he brought his stuff tonight. We were able to pass one at the end, and it was a hell of a race.”
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