FORT WORTH, Texas -- At one point in Saturday's O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge, NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Austin Dillon was running in the middle of the pack and Sam Hornish Jr. wasn't even on the lead lap.
They both finished in the top five, and that's exactly why they're the class of the Nationwide field, separated by just six points with a pair of races left as they each gun for their first series championship.
Dillon's tire strategy involved saving a set for the end, but four cautions for a total of 19 laps didn't play into the team's game plan, leaving his No. 3 Chevrolet with a set of old tires and a loss of track position.
"It's not bad, we fought hard and we were trying to save a set of tires at the end," Dillon said. "We were on the same strategy as the other cars, it just kind of stinks having tires in the pits. We would've liked to have been able to have them. The cautions didn't fall right for our plan and we lost a little track position that way but we came back strong, fifth, that's good. We want top-fives from here on out, so we'll keep plugging."
Dillon's fifth-place finish maintained the consistency he's shown throughout the season, but in particular the last handful of races, making it six straight top-six finishes to hang onto his points lead over Hornish.
"The pressure is on him, obviously (Hornish) keeps making mistakes,'' Dillon told reporters after the race. "It's going to be a battle to the end."
While Dillon may feel the pressure is on Hornish, it's hard to picture an even-keeled, 34-year-old three-time IndyCar champion and former Indianapolis 500 winner cracking. That said, Hornish knows he made a mistake early in the race when he was penalized for hitting a commitment cone coming into pit road, putting him down a lap.
From the sound of it, his No. 12 Penske Racing team hadn't marked Texas down for a place to gain significant points anyway, knowing Dillon has shown strength here in the past and Hornish struggled to a 34th-place finish in the spring.
"I didn't know if we were going to be able to do much here as far as being able to capitalize. Austin has been pretty good on the 1.5-mile tracks, especially the bumpier ones like here and Atlanta and Kentucky as well," Hornish said after coming back to finish third. "Really, for most of the last 12 or 13 races we have run within two or three spots of each other for almost the entire race. I might be two or three behind him and then it switches around. It seems like I have been around the 3 car a lot the second half of the season.
"We need a little bit more than that but we'll keep working hard and doing the right things. Phoenix is one of my favorite tracks and I've had a lot of good runs at Homestead too.''
If the last few months indicate a trend of what to expect from these two, it's evident this battle is going to go beyond Phoenix. It's going to come right down to the wire.
"We didn't lose any (points) and that is the key thing," Hornish said. "If we can take one or two off the following weekend, that puts the pressure on him. He doesn't just have to finish within a couple spots of us then, he will have to beat us."
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