Dillon tops Hornish for Nationwide Series championship

Homestead, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Austin Dillon clinched the 2013 Nationwide Series championship by just three points over Sam Hornish Jr. after finishing 12th in Saturday's Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Dillon, who came to Homestead with an eight-point lead over Hornish, struggled for most of this 300-mile race but hung on at the end to beat Hornish for the title. Hornish finished eighth.

A four-car accident that occurred on the frontstretch late in the race forced the 10th caution and final caution, a lengthy one that lasted 12 laps. When the race resumed with five laps to go, Hornish was running in third and Dillon in fifth.

"We didn't have the car to run up there at all tonight," Dillon said. "It was probably the worst car we've had all year. We fought, and my guys kept me positive in the car. I just knew that I had to go on that last restart. I've been criticized for restarts for a long time. That was a pretty good one. I just hung up against the wall there and tried to grind it out."

After starting on the pole, it looked as though Hornish would prevail in the championship battle with Dillon, as Hornish led 37 of the first 38 laps.

"Sam was a great competitor," Dillon said. "He brought his stuff tonight. But we were able to capitalize at the end. It was a hell of a race."

Dillon is the 23-year-old grandson of NASCAR multi-team owner Richard Childress. He drives the No. 3 Chevrolet for Childress' Nationwide team, a car number made famous by the late seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, who drove for Childress in most of his Cup Series career. Dillon became the third driver to win a championship in both the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, joining Greg Biffle and Johnny Benson. His truck title came in 2011.

"This is another championship with a 3," Childress said. "Austin won it with a 3 in the Truck Series. 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."

Dillon became the 24th different driver to win a championship in NASCAR's second-tier series. He posted 22 top-10 finishes in 33 races this season but did not score any wins. Hornish ended his season with 25 top-10s, including one victory (Las Vegas).

"We win as a team, and we lose as a team," Hornish said. "I'm really happy with all the effort everybody put forward at Penske Racing. We just needed a little bit more."

Brad Keselowski won the race after charging from 11th to first following the last restart. Keselowski, who drove the No. 48 Ford for Penske Racing in this event, passed rookie Kyle Larson for the lead with three laps to go. He beat Larson to the finish line by 1.1 seconds for his seventh Nationwide win of the season and the 27th of his career. It's also his second victory in the series at this 1.5-mile South Florida racetrack.

"Seven victories in one year, that's the most I've ever had, and this has been a lot of fun," Keselowski said. "We had a really fast Ford Mustang. This has been a great 2013 season in the Nationwide Series for Penske Racing."

While Keselowski drove the No. 48 car to victory lane, Joey Logano's sixth- place finish in the No. 22 Ford allowed Roger Penske to win the owner's championship in the series for the first time. Penske's No. 22 team concluded the season with only a one-point margin over Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 team. Kyle Busch finished third in the No. 54 Toyota.

The 22 team won 12 Nationwide races this season with four different drivers -- Keselowski, Logano, A.J. Allmendinger and Ryan Blaney. The 54 team had a dozen victories as well, all of them with Busch.

"Without Joey and without Brad, without Sam (Hornish, No. 12 car), when you think about 14 wins in a season, in any series, it's outstanding," Penske said. "Really a credit to the entire team."

Penske's first owner's championship in the Sprint Cup Series came one year ago with Keselowski.

Larson, who finished second in four Nationwide races this season, earned the rookie-of- the-year title. He drove the No. 32 Chevrolet for Turner Scott Motorsports. Larson will compete for rookie honors in Sprint Cup next year, driving for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

"It means a lot to me to win the rookie of the year in the Nationwide Series," said Larson, who led the most laps in this race with 54. "A lot of the veterans in the past and in the current Cup Series have won the rookie of the year. To add my name to that list hopefully means I'm doing something good."

Larson's car, though, failed post-race inspection after officials discovered the front end did not meet the minimum height requirement. Penalties to the team could be forthcoming next week.

Matt Kenseth finished fourth, followed by Trevor Bayne. Parker Kligerman was seventh. Cole Whitt and Nelson Piquet Jr. completed the top-10.

After receiving much criticism for not displaying the red flag to stop the race during the last caution, NASCAR defended its decision to keep the yellow (caution) flag out longer than expected due to issues with the track clean-up.

"It really looked like it was going to be a typical clean-up, a typical wreck," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said after the race. "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. We felt like we could get it in normal lap segment, but unfortunately, there was a lot of oil. It looked like it kept either seeping back up out of the racetrack or whatever from the car that was on the outside of the wall.

"We went one to go a handful of times, trying to get back racing as soon as we can, but when you're in situations like that, the most important thing is getting the track race ready. You can look and use your hindsight every chance that you want to, but in this particular time, we did the best we could, and it was more important to get the track ready."