Although he’s only competed in NASCAR’s national series fulltime for four years, Austin Dillon has already perfected the art of proving he’s the best rookie in a series one year and the series’ best overall driver the next. In 2014, he gets an opportunity to start the process all over again when he moves to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
In 2010, Dillon captured NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. He followed it up with the series title in 2011 on the strength of two wins. The following season, Dillon jumped to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, again taking home the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award.
The 23-year-old driver from Welcome, N.C., entered 2013 with high expectations and hopes of duplicating his previous track accolades. Despite not reaching Victory Lane, his strong performances week after week yielded finishes that kept him in the championship conversation throughout the season.
Dillon became only the third driver to win titles in both the NASCAR Nationwide and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, joining Greg Biffle and Johnny Benson. If Dillon’s track record holds true to form and he wins the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in 2014 and the series’ crown during his career, he would become the first driver to earn rookie of the year honors and win championships in each of NASCAR’s three national series.
Although Dillon and his two closest rivals throughout the season, Sam Hornish Jr. and Regan Smith, took turns sharing the points lead in the drivers’ standings, it was Penske Racing’s No. 22 Ford and Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 Toyota that battled back and forth for the owners’ championship. Four different drivers – Brad Keselowski (six), Joey Logano (three), AJ Allmendinger (two) and Ryan Blaney (one) – piloted the Penske Ford to the checkered flag 12 times and, ultimately, the title.
Austin Dillon – Dillon’s 2013 campaign was a model of consistency in which he only finished outside the top 20 twice in 33 races. As the season progressed so did his finishes, wrapping up the season with an 11-race streak of top-12 finishes, including a pair of runner-up performances at Kentucky and Charlotte. After a long climb from seventh in points after the first Charlotte race, Dillon claimed the top spot in the standings for good after placing sixth in the fall Kansas race. Though winless on the year, Dillon posted 13 top fives and 22 top 10s. Additionally, he captured a series-high seven poles, including a series-record four in a row.
Kyle Busch / Sam Hornish Jr. (Honorable Mention) – No one can dispute that Kyle Busch was on a mission to prove that his winless 2012 season was a fluke. By season’s end, he had visited Victory Lane 12 times (one shy of his personal best) and posted 22 top 10s in only 26 races. He led at least one lap in 20 races, and fell one point shy of winning Joe Gibbs Racing its fifth owners’ crown in six years. Hornish ran atop the points standings or in second after 30 of the 33 races, winning at Las Vegas in the third race of the season. He finished as the top points-eligible driver in 10 races, finishing second only three points behind Dillon in the final rankings.
Comeback Drivers of the Year
Regan Smith – After starting 102 races over the course of six years without a win, Smith took a five-year break from competing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series to focus on his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. He returned to series competition for the 2012 season finale at Homestead, where he won driving for JR Motorsports. He came back in 2013 as the full-time driver of the organization’s No. 7 Chevrolet. He posted personal bests in wins (two), top fives (eight) and top 10s (19) – all of which eclipsed his career totals heading into the season. Smith finished third in the final standings, 17 spots better than his previous best back in 2005.
Trevor Bayne (Honorable Mention) – Going into the 2013 season, no driver had more pressure to succeed than Trevor Bayne, who replaced back-to-back NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Bayne’s June win at Iowa was huge for a team that had experienced great success with Stenhouse, but was still waiting to see if their new driver was capable of handling the expectations that come with working with a championship-caliber team. Bayne delivered, posting personal bests in top fives (seven) and top 10s (21), as well as finishing a career-best sixth in the standings. He spent all but four weeks in the top 10 of the standings.
Penske Racing – No other team in NASCAR’s No. 2 series demonstrated as much dominance as Penske Racing with all five of its drivers winning at least once in 2013, accounting for 14 wins. Four of its drivers – Keselowski, Logano, Allmendinger and Blaney – all piloted the No. 22 Ford to Victory Lane en route to capturing the owners’ title. Hornish also collected one win in the No. 12 Ford, with Keselowski tacking on one more victory in the No. 48 Ford in the season finale at Homestead.
Joe Gibbs Racing (Honorable Mention) – Although the No. 54 Toyota, driven primarily by Kyle Busch, grabbed most of the headlines for JGR this season, the organization also fielded three other NASCAR Nationwide cars. The No. 54 entry moved atop the owners’ standings after the sixth race of the season and held it for 16 consecutive weeks before relinquishing its perch. Matt Kenseth also pulled in two victories in the No. 18 Toyota.
Top Breakthrough Performances
Kyle Larson – When Larson crossed the finish line second in the season finale at Homestead, he added another impressive race finish to an already-remarkable rookie season. The California native won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award by 82 points over Alex Bowman, becoming the first NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate and first Asian-American driver to receive the award in a national series. He finished eighth in the final points standings after posting nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, including four runner-up performances. In the March Bristol race, Larson went toe-to-toe with Kyle Busch over the final laps before finishing 0.023 seconds behind the veteran driver, proving he has the ability to compete against the more-experienced drivers when he moves to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014.
Brian Scott (Honorable Mention) – In his fourth full-time season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Scott was hoping his switch to Richard Childress Racing would bring him more success. Although the move didn’t result in trips to Victory Lane, he improved his stats across the board – top fives (three), top 10s (13) and final position in the standings (seventh). There was no race at which his talent was more apparent than the Virginia 529 College Savings 250 at Richmond in September. Scott started on the pole and led the first 239 circuits in the 250-lap event, before finishing second to Brad Keselowski.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Aug. 17) – The NASCAR Nationwide Series made its first trip to Ohio for NASCAR’s first national series event at Mid-Ohio in Lexington, located about an hour away from the series’ entitlement sponsor’s headquarters. The lead changed hands eight times among seven drivers with the eventual race winner AJ Allmendinger leading a race-high 73 laps, including the final 31. The road course was a welcome sight for several road-ringers who all took turns at the point, including Allmendinger, Michael McDowell (finished second) and Max Papis (fourth).
Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway (Mar. 16) – The finish in this 300-lap event at the coliseum nestled in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee provided a classic duel between veteran driver and young gun. As the laps wound down, Kyle Larson charged to the front of the field in an attempt to overtake Kyle Busch. Unable to catch Busch, Larson hugged the bumper of the No. 54 Toyota with one lap to go. Busch dropped to the bottom of the track and Larson stayed up top, but as they crossed the finish line the two were door-to-door with the veteran besting the rookie by a fender.
DuPont Pioneer 250 at Iowa Speedway (June 9) – In an attempt to win his first race, eventual series champion Austin Dillon dominated, leading 207 of the 250 laps before surrendering his spot at the front of the pack to Trevor Bayne with 12 laps to go. Dillon started the race on the pole for the third time in as many races. The race saw 12 lead changes among four drivers. Bayne, who got married five days earlier, notched his second career victory in the series and his first since taking over the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford vacated by two-time NASCAR Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.