Austin Dillon to drive Tony Stewart's Cup car at Michigan
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
Greg Zipadelli joked that he'd have to make Austin Dillon wear a blindfold until he climbs into Tony Stewart's No. 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chevrolet this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.
In all seriousness, Zipadelli, the director of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, is comfortable with the choice of the 23-year-old Dillon to substitute for Stewart, who is recovering from broken bones in his right leg sustained during a Sprint Car accident Aug. 5 in Iowa.
It's just that necessity sometimes forges strange alliances, and in this case, the scion of Richard Childress Racing, the current Nationwide Series leader, will be driving a Stewart-Haas Cup car whose chassis and engine are supplied by Hendrick Motorsports.
It's not that Stewart and Dillon have little in common. In fact, they share a sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, and that was one of the compelling reasons for the choice of Dillon as Stewart's stand-in.
The drivers also share a mutual respect.
"I've watched Austin for many years, and at each stage of his racing career, he's been successful," Stewart said in a release announcing Dillon's selection for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. "He's proven to be a very fast learner, and he's able to adapt quickly.
"Being the youngest champion in the history of the Truck Series is proof of that. His background in dirt racing is an asset, and off the track we share many of the same interests, specifically, hunting and fishing. I know he'll perform well at Michigan and I'm just as confident in his ability to properly represent Mobil 1 and Bass Pro Shops throughout the race weekend."
Stewart got a first-hand look at Dillon, the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, when he, Austin and Ty Dillon tested for the historic dirt-track Truck race at Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, Ohio), which Stewart owns.
After the test, Dillon returned to Eldora for the first high-level NASCAR race on dirt in 43 years and won the inaugural Mudsummer Classic there.
Dillon's ride this weekend in Stewart's car, however, is fraught with logistical complexities. The Nationwide Series is racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. Though the series has an extra practice day on Thursday for the NNS debut on Saturday, qualifying for the Nationwide race is a dead-bang conflict with Cup practice at Michigan.
Dillon says he's prepared to start from the rear at Mid-Ohio--which is what will happen if he skips time trials at Mid-Ohio--to allocate sufficient practice time to Michigan, if necessary, even though he holds a slim three-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr. in the Nationwide standings and a five-point margin over third-place Regan Smith.
"We're going to be running both of them, and the scheduling is pretty tough this weekend, so we'll be doing our best to give equal amount of practice time," Dillon said in a teleconference Monday afternoon. "The good thing about Mid-Ohio, we have a full test day there Thursday, so we'll have plenty of time on the track. We have lots of sets of tires, and we'll be using them up on Thursday.
"Qualifying seems to be the issue for the Nationwide race. That is the only part that will be tough. We might have to start in the rear. But I think we've done a good job of trying to work out where each party gets a good amount of practice on both cars."
For the moment, the deal with Dillon is for the Michigan race only. Dillon has made two of his nine Cup starts there and posted a career-best 11th at MIS in an RCR chassis in June.
Zipadelli said Stewart-Haas would evaluate its options on a week-to-week basis as Stewart recuperates. No timetable has been set for the three-time Cup champion's return to the No. 14 car.
"It's going to be a weekly occurrence here for a little while," Zipadelli said. "We'll evaluate each race as it comes and do the best job we can with putting someone in it we feel will do a good job for Stewart-Haas and all of our partners.
"We will probably know more next week. Tony has a doctor's appointment Wednesday here to just kind of go over things, and at that point we'll have a lot better idea of what we're doing. But for right now it will probably be a week-by-week decision as far as who is in the car."