S.D. Grady · Tuesday August 13, 2013
Three-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart will likely be out of his No. 14 for the remainder of the 2013 season with a broken leg. That is horrible news. It’s shocking and depressing and just a little disorienting to realize one of our superstars is out of the scene.
But as with all else in life, the loss of a driver from a ride opens the door of opportunity for another.
Monday afternoon, Greg Zipadelli, Director of Competition for Stewart-Haas Racing, announced that Austin Dillon will be piloting the Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops No. 14 at Michigan this upcoming weekend. Most awesome.
Since I heard about Tony’s accident last week, I’ve been twisting the possible substitute driver options in my mind. Vickers, Allmendinger and Smith were the top runners. Dillon’s announcement somewhat stymied me, at first. And then I saw the light. Of course, Austin Dillon! It’s perfect!
What? A not-even rookie in a top-notch Chase contending car? Why would Stewart-Haas even consider putting a greenie behind the wheel? After all, Dillon’s future is already veritably assured driving for his grandpa over at RCR. He doesn’t even need the ride.
NASCAR is a business, besides a sport. Stewart-Haas relies on Smoke’s acerbic tongue and stellar driving ability to keep the No. 14 in camera shot week after week. While Brian Vickers would top my list of choices to keep the fans on their feet for SHR, he’s busy solidifying his relationship with MWR, looking at a fulltime ride for 2014. Now would not be a good time to go dancing with a team that has nothing to offer for Brian’s future. So, not Vickers.
Was AJ Allmendinger or Regan Smith sure shots in the “must have killer PR” department? As much as I adore AJ’s ready smile and appreciate Regan’s driving ability, neither can guarantee Top 10 finishes or enough gossip fodder to keep that No. 14 on every fan’s mind for even the next race.
AJ has yet to find that sweet spot behind the wheel of a Cup car to be considered worthy of a seat in something like the No. 14. Smith, on the other hand, is about as exciting in an interview as vanilla pudding. Even if he brought Smoke’s ride into Victory Lane, we’d forget about the achievement as soon as Keselowski tweeted his next pic.
Dillon, while as new to a Cup ride as they can get, has an existing solid relationship with one of Tony’s sponsors: Bass Pro Shops. That makes the money men happy. He has a polished media image, complete with the silly cowboy hat. He already has one Camping World Truck title, snared third in 2012 for Nationwide and is busy lining up the NNS trophy for 2013. He’s exuberant on camera, drives the much disputed black No. 3 and is born of the Childress family racing pedigree.
He may not manage a Top 20 in the Cup car, but he will be interviewed. And after watching his competitive abilities over the past couple years, his learning curve will definitely give the cameras something to lock onto during long green flag runs typical of a Michigan summer afternoon.
It’s not about what the No. 14 can do for Dillon. Every driver wants to get into a championship driver’s cockpit. Putting Dillon in the signature Stewart-Haas ride has everything to do with maintaining the media presence required to keep sponsors, fans, networks—and thus the checkbook—focused and happy.
There’s no doubt we’re going to be missing Tony. (I’m hoping he might take the time to join the Twitterdom and share his boredom with the masses.) But until he returns, it is clear that SHR has the future of their team well in hand, making business decisions that include making the best choice of driver possible to represent their brand while the boss man is healing up.
Congrats to Austin Dillon and Get Better, Tony!
And stay tuned for the next episode of “The Magical Musical Chair of the No. 14 Chevrolet.”
Kyle Larson Stat
Track: Watkins Glen
Car: No. 32 McDonald’s Chevrolet
Finished: 30th (DNF—41 laps down—engine)
Points Standings: 8th
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