Austin Dillon said he wouldn't run a defensive race and slide into a championship despite entering Friday night's season finale with a cushion in the points race.
The 21-year-old hot shot with the No. 3 on the side of his black Chevrolet all but slipped into a championship thanks to a torrential downpour that prematurely ended the Ford 200 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Dillon was declared the 2011 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion after rain halted the Ford 200 with 15 laps remaining and Dillon running in 10th. Johnny Sauter came into the night 20 points back in the chase for the title but his run was literally washed out. Sauter was leading, after holding off Denny Hamlin on what turned into the final lap under green, when the race was called.
Sauter's second win of the season was a bit bittersweet as he knew how close he had come to the title. Had Dillon been closer to the bottom of the field at the time, Sauter would have won the race – and the championship. Sauter ended the season a mere six points back.
“I had no clue,'' Sauter said when asked when he knew rain would be an issue, “until it was on my windshield.''
Dillon couldn't contain his emotion as he was told the race was over as he jumped into the air and hugged everyone in sight – including team owner (and grandfather) Richard Childress. Dillon becomes the youngest truck series champion in its 17th season.
“This,'' Dillon said, “is the best day of my life.''
Dillon had been battling for the top spot until dropping back with less than 35 laps remaining. By the time Dillon dropped to 14th with 32 laps to go, his points lead was cut to just two as Sauter took the lead. Sauter, in his third full year in the truck series, led 44 of the 119 laps – most of any driver. Dillon never led a lap but spent plenty of time up front.
With 24 remaining, Dillon had moved up to 11th and found a comfortable spot as he settled in 10th. That's where he stayed until the skies opened up again – the starting grid was based off practice times as qualifying was washed out – and the trucks were called to pit road.
“What an eventful day. It was a phenomenal year,'' Sauter said. “Winning two NASCAR races in a year is a huge accomplishment and something I've always tried to do. To be six points back at the end is a bit of a bummer knowing some of the things we went through the year. You can go down the list; everyone can. That's racing. It was a pleasure to drive this truck. To win two races and know we get to come back next year and chase a championship is awesome.''
Dillon, the 2010 rookie of the year, goes into next season with momentum as he takes on a full-time ride for Richard Childress Racing in the Nationwide Series.
And like the truck he brought into victory lane on Friday, Dillon will be running stock cars with the famed No. 3 on the side in 2012 – the first time that number will run full-time in either Nationwide or Sprint Cup since Dale Earnhardt's tragic death at the 2001 Daytona 500.
Dillon is not only the grandson of Childress but the son of RCR general manager Mike Dillon. Earnhardt won six of his seven Cup titles for Childress upon coming over to RCR in 1984. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has run a No. 3 car in three Nationwide races since his father's death – including a victory at the Daytona summer race last year.
Ty Dillon, 19, takes over the No. 3 truck for RCR next season. In his third truck start Friday, Ty finished sixth. He placed third at Texas – Austin ran second – earlier this month.