Now races at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway will decide the series title between two drivers going in seemingly diametrically different directions: Dillon toward a first full-time Sprint Cup launch with Richard Childress Racing, and Hornish into an offseason of uncertainty after what looks increasingly like his last campaign in a long, multi-regimen career with Penske Racing.
Hornish entered Saturday's race at Texas Motor Speedway second in driver points, eight back of Dillon, and was able to eventually gain ground by recovering from being a lap down early after a pit-road penalty with the help of a wave-around call to finish third on the 1.5-mile track. Dillon finished a more uneventful fifth but lost two points on his lead.
For Hornish, two points seemed like a large points grab considering the fact he fell briefly to 17th in the running order after his mishap on Saturday.
"It is a real good run to come back from being a lap down," said Hornish, who has more wins (1 to 0), top-5s (15 to 12) and top-10s (23 to 21) than Dillon this season. "It was a good strategy call to get us the wave-around, and we had to start at the back, and then when we came down pit road, the yellow came out and we had to go to the back of the lead-lap cars.
"I am really proud of all the guys at Penske Racing and the work that they do, not only on the race cars, but on the setups and things like that. I tried to stay calm and work my way back up there. We overtightened the car up when we got back to the very end and it just didn't happen. I didn't have anything for Brad [Keselowski, race winner] or Denny [Hamlin] at the end. We had an opportunity to make it three wide for the lead there, but I thought better of it."
With two races remaining, Hornish seemed more relieved that he didn't lose points heading into the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix. Now he enters a 1-mile venue linked to several career milestones, where he made his debut in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series and won his first career IndyCar race.
"We did what we could do. We took care of ourselves. We had a decent run," he said. "We came back when it didn't look like we would gain points for quite a bit of the race. I was thinking that we would gain three today. But then I didn't realize that he led a lap. I thought that we were going to chunk three off at a time.
"I am really looking forward to going to Phoenix. I love that track and have a lot of good memories there. We will see what happens. We didn't lose any [ground], and that is the key thing. 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."
Dillon, the 2011 Truck series champion, has finished no worse than sixth in his past three starts at Phoenix and started third and finished fifth in his only Nationwide start at Homestead.
In a sport driven by personality and controversy, the Dillon-Hornish tilt figures to be settled with on-track performance and little off-track histrionics. The pair might not be best friends, but they have become collegial combatants.
"You have to be civil when you're racing these guys for 33 weekends," Dillon said. "You just want to race hard and race the way you want to be raced. He's done that. It's going to be a challenge right down to the end."
The very end, it seems.