HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The championship should have been all about Austin Dillon completing a dogged comeback from deep in the field to chase down Sam Hornish Jr. and claim the Nationwide Series championship.
It should have been about a young star adding another credential to his burgeoning resume before he makes the biggest leap of his brief career to Sprint Cup.
Instead, it will be too much about Homestead-Miami Speedway track workers attempting to sop oil from the track as race cars whiled away 12 of the final 17 laps of the final event of the season with the points leaders separated by five points. Dillon seems willing to live with that after edging Hornish by three (just like his storied car number) points.
"Sam Hornish is a great competitor. When you win them like this, it means so much more," he said, referring to a points battle that was close all race. "Tight, nerve-wracking all the way down to the end. I'm not going to lie, I was nervous."
So was his team owner and grandfather, Richard Childress. And then there was relief and a beer-soaked dress shirt.
"This is another championship with a 3," said Childress, who won six Sprint Cup titles with the late Dale Earnhardt in a No. 3 Chevrolet. "Austin won it with a 3 in the Truck series. I remember before that race was over, I looked up to the sky and said, 'Old pal, we need you.' I did that again tonight. He came through."
The 23-year-old Dillon won his second NASCAR national series championship in three years and is expected to bring the storied number back to Sprint Cup next year.
The particulars won't be as romantic as the broader story because of NASCAR's decision not to stop the race when track workers couldn't clean the surface following a multicar crash. Hornish began the final restart in third place but five points back in the standings of Dillon, who had worked his way through the field after a woeful start because of serious handling problems. Dillon restarted on the final green flag sixth and needed only to stay within four spots of Hornish, who had to press hard on the restart and slumped to eighth at the finish.
The long delay clearly benefited him, but Dillon said it didn't matter.
"God is great," Dillon said. "It would have worked out great either way."
Dillon finished 12th, calling to crew chief Danny Stockman over team radio, "Are we the champ?"
They were and deservedly so, if only by a scant three points. Despite not winning a race this season, the 2011 Truck series champion finished with 13 top-5s (five in the final eight races) and 22 top-10s. On Saturday, he wrangled an ill-handling No. 3 Chevrolet for much of the race -- at one point scuffing the wall -- before Stockman was able to tighten the handling enough to generate speed sufficient to move him toward the front.
Dillon had entered the race with an eight-point lead, and when he pulled within six spots of Hornish with 20 laps left all he needed to do was stay close and hang on. A three-car crash with 16 laps left made that task much easier as an exasperated Penske camp watched helplessly.
Team owner Roger Penske said he was extremely disappointed in NASCAR's decision not to red-flag the race with "so much at stake" for Hornish and Dillon.
The evening was not a complete disappointment for Penske, as Brad Keselowski's victory gave the No. 22 Ford 13 for the season and the owner one of his few remaining NASCAR laurels, a Nationwide owners' title. Penske entered the race two points behind Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 Toyota but won the championship by a point.
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said there was "no need to throw a red," although officials issued and rescinded a "one to go" order several times before the eventual restart. The scenario, he said, appeared to be a typical crash and clean-up.
"We went one-to-go a handful of times trying to get back racing as soon as we can, but, you know, when you're in situations like that the most important thing is getting the racetrack ready," he said. "You know, you can look at you can use your hindsight every chance that you want to, but in this particular time we did the best we could to do and it was more important to get the track ready."
Hornish, after the race leaning against the door of his No. 12 Ford and contemplating returning to the garage on Sunday to solicit Sprint Cup teams for any openings, said he was surprised by the length of the caution that reduced his chances in the final laps. He refused to express his opinion on whether a red flag should have been waved, but he somehow knew that Cup drivers had been tweeting their dismay as his chances bled away slow 1.5-mile laps at a time. His lot in the race and the championship came down to decisions and execution and points he or his teammates let get away, he said.
"It's a tough one to swallow but we knew we were coming in as the outside opportunity to win and we had to do everything right," Hornish said.