HOMESTEAD, Fla. - The No. 3 is a champion in NASCAR once again.
On Saturday night in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 300, Austin Dillon did just enough to stay close enough to Sam Hornish Jr. to hold onto the points lead and win the Nationwide title by a mere (and appropriate) three points. Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, is the first driver to take the #3 to a championship since Dale Earnhardt Sr. He's also the first driver to win a championship in any of NASCAR's three national series to win a championship without winning a race.
Hornish had an edge in most of the race, but Dillon kept grinding, taking advantage of cautions — 49 of the race's 200 laps were under yellow — to remain close enough to hold onto his points lead.
"We gave away points at different times in the season," a subdued Hornish said immediately afterward, "but we win as a team, we lose as a team ... We just needed a little bit more."
The cautions, in particular a long final caution, brought the race an unexpected share of controversy. After a four-car wreck on lap 184, the cleanup and the caution period lasted 12 laps, or 18 miles ... miles that Hornish really could have used, miles that Dillon was happy to see cycle by at slow speeds.
By the time the race got back underway, there were only six green-flag laps remaining, not enough time for Hornish to get distance on Dillon or other members of the field to pass the No. 3.
"I've never seen a race that was so important that you have to wait 15, 16 laps [actually 12] to go with just a few left," Hornish's team owner, Roger Penske, said after the race. "To me, that was very disappointing."
Naturally, on Twitter, fans and certain NASCAR media screamed conspiracy. ESPN wanted to get to the Alabama game!, ran one theory. NASCAR wanted Childress to get a championship! went another. Oh, and then there was the in-race controversy of Brad Keselowski is helping Hornish by not giving 100 percent! theory.
That NASCAR wanted to gift Childress a championship is highly debatable; indeed, until the final laps it appeared likely that Hornish and Dillon would end up tied. But ESPN absolutely had nothing to do with the red-flag decision; the network switched the kickoff of the Alabama game to ESPN News, sticking with the Nationwide series all the way through postrace interviews.
As for Keselowski? Well, if he wasn't giving 100 percent, he's one hell of a driver. He won the race.
This race marked a rare three-winner combination. While Dillon won the championship, Keselowski won the race with a late charge that took him from 11th to first in two laps. And Roger Penske won the owner's championship with the No. 22 car, edging out Gibbs' 54 by a single point.