Austin Dillon to take over #14 at Michigan
13 August 2013
Stewart-Haas Racing has announced that Nationwide Series driver Austin Dillon will take over the team's #14 car for this weekend's upcoming Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway.
He'll be deputising for Tony Stewart, who suffered a double fracture to his right leg in a racing accident last week in a regional winged sprint car race in southern Iowa. Stewart has undergone surgery and is now out of hospital and recuperating at home, but will be out of action for an as-yet unspecified period while he recovers.
Road course specialist Max Papis sat in for Stewart at last weekend's Cup race at Watkins Glen, and on Monday Stewart-Haas confirmed that the seat will now go to Austin Dillon for the next round at Michigan. Dillon was the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion and is now competing full-time in the Nationwide Series, where he currently leads the championship standings.
Dillon races for Richard Childress Racing and is Childress' grandson. The 23-year-old is widely tipped to step up to full-time Cup competition with the team in 2014 after Kevin Harvick leaves RCR at the end of the current season to take up a new position as Stewart's team mate at SHR.
"I've watched Austin for many years and at each stage of his racing career he's been successful,” Stewart said in a statement issued by the team on Monday. "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," Stewart added. "I know he'll perform well at Michigan and I'm just as confident in his ability to properly represent [sponsors] Mobil 1 and Bass Pro Shops throughout the race weekend."
Dillon will now have to split his time this weekend between Michigan and Mid Ohio Sports Car Course, where the Nationwide Series will racing. Weather permitting there should be no trouble with Dillon flying from one event to the other, although he'll miss out on Friday morning practice in Lexington, Ohio - Max Papis is expected to take over the #3 car for that session in his place. With all the Nationwide drivers getting a full day of extra testing on Thursday as it's their first visit to the circuit, the loss of track time shouldn't be an issue for him.
"We went down through the list and saw who is available and who had track time, who was doing double duty and was willing to try to work out a schedule that would work for both sides," explained Stewart-Haas Racing's director of competition Greg Zipadelli. "Austin's done a great job in the past at Michigan. We kind of felt like it was a good fit for us this week."
"I'm really looking forward to the opportunity that's presented itself here at Stewart‑Haas," said Dillon in a teleconference on Monday afternoon. "I just want to thank all the parties at RCR and Stewart‑Haas for giving me this opportunity to let me go out there in a premier ride in the Cup series.
"It's a great opportunity for me," he added. "We're really focused on the Nationwide Championship as well, and we're going to give both parties a great opportunity at a win this weekend. We're going to go out there and try to run strong."
Zipadelli said that the team was likely to be working week-to-week for the foreseeable future in terms of deciding who will be at the wheel of the #14. Dillon is confirmed only for the one race at Michigan and the team said that no decision had yet been made about the following event at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee on August 24.
"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," Zipadelli explained, adding that he'd had expressions of interest in the seat from around 50 drivers in the last week via phone and text messages. However, he confirmed that he would personally prefer to see some continuity to the substitute driver line-up moving forward.
"I think we'd rather have one or two drivers if we can work it out. I think that will give us some consistency, build some communication between the crew and the driver and that will give us our best chance. We're working on some of that stuff now and hopefully we'll see it," he said. "It may be more than two, maybe three or four. If that's the case, we'll look at each individual racetrack and see who is available that runs good at that racetrack and make the best choice we can."
Zipadelli stated that he certainly wasn't viewing Dillon as a strictly 'one-off' deal for the team this weekend. "We're talking about other races, we just kind of want to get through this week here and then plan ahead," he said. "We've got a little bit more time this week. We'll be able to plan weeks out here once we get this Michigan stuff done."
One potential issue is Dillon's strong association with a major rival Cup team, and the potential for him to walk off with Stewart-Haas 'trade secrets' in terms of engine and car set-up is clearly a concern.
"We're going to put a blindfold on him and right before he backs out of the garage we'll take it off, then he won't be able to look," laughed Zipadelli. "Yes, it will probably be difficult at times ... We've got to be guarded, and the same with him. He's got to come over here and trust that we can put something in the car that he can drive. And same time he can come over here and tell us all the things they're doing too.
"I think on both sides we'll be respectful of each other, and do the best job we can," he added. "I think it will be fine. Besides that, he won't be there that much anyway - he's got a lot of flying time [getting from one circuit to the other]!"
Meanwhile Michigan is clearly a good track for Dillon to get his first outing in the #14. "If you look at the record and how he's done, he runs good at Michigan, and he's young," Zipadelli said. "He's ready to rock and roll and we're ready to see what we can accomplish this weekend."
"I'm very confident at Michigan, it's one of my favourite tracks," Dillon agreed. "We led all the laps in the Nationwide race there this year until we had the left rear flat and ran well in the Cup race. So I'm looking forward to it. I think it's a place that we can really go out and have a good run at this weekend."
Asked if there was any greater clarity yet about how long Stewart would be sidelined for, Zipadelli said the situation was still very much up in the air.
"In the next couple of days, we'll probably be able to lay out the whole schedule," he commented. "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."
In terms of the championship, Stewart dropped six spots in the points standings just by missing Watkins Glen - one of his strongest venues - and is now in 17th position and currently out of contention for the 2013 Sprint Cup Chase. One option could be for Stewart to start a race in the car and then hand off to a replacement driver as soon as possible as that way he would still be credited with any driver points that his stand-in went on to win. It's a strategy that Denny Hamlin used on his first race back from a spinal injury earlier in the season.
"Honestly, if the doctor said we could do that, we'd probably do it," agreed Zipadelli. "We're going to do everything that they say, because we want him back a hundred percent and don't want to [bring him back] sooner than you're supposed to and make [his] healing process longer, so we'll follow on with what the doctor says.
"If the doctor says in four weeks or six weeks he can do that, then we'll probably look at those options and do what we can do," he added.