Shortly after announcing that Austin Dillon would be the substitute driver behind the wheel of Tony Stewart’s No. 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., on Sunday, both Dillon and and Stewart-Haas Racing Director of Competition Greg Zipadelli participated in a NASCAR teleconference to discuss the decision.
The Michigan race will be the 10th-career Sprint Cup start for Dillon, a regular in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. It’ll be his first start, though, in the No. 14. Following Stewart’s injury in an Aug. 5 sprint car race in Iowa, Max Papis filled-in behind the wheel of the No. 14 on Aug. 11 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. A timeline for Stewart’s return is unknown, and no decisions have been made regarding substitute drivers for remaining races beyond Michigan.
Here is what Zipadelli and Dillon had to say about Dillon driving the No. 14 at Michigan:
GREG ZIPADELLI: Well, we went down through the list and saw who is available and who had track time, who was doing double duty and was willing to try to work out a schedule that would work for both sides. He has a strong relationship with Bass Pro Shop, and a big part of how we go through this is making sure that our partners are happy with what we’re doing as far as who we’re putting in the car and who will represent their brands in the way they want it represented.
Like I said, there is a strong relationship there. Austin’s done a great job in the past at Michigan. We kind of felt like it was a good fit for us this week.
Q. Austin, what are your expectations for your 10th career Sprint Cup Series start this weekend at Michigan?
AUSTIN DILLON: Well, I’m really looking forward to the opportunity that’s presented itself here at Stewart-Haas. I just want to thank all the parties at RCR and Stewart-Haas for giving me this opportunity to let me go out there in a premier ride in the Cup series. Like I said, we’ve had a great relationship with Bass Pro Shops and looking forward to representing them and Mobil 1 this weekend.
It’s a great opportunity for me. We’re really focused on the Nationwide Championship as well, and we’re going to give both parties a great opportunity at a win this weekend. We’re going to go out there and try to run strong.
Q. Greg, I was wondering, are you guys looking at this as being sort of a weekly occurrence until Tony can get back in the car? Do you have any idea at all when that might be?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Well, it’s going to be a weekly occurrence here for a little while. We’ll evaluate each race as it comes and do the best job we can with putting someone in it we feel will do a good job for Stewart-Haas and all of our partners.
We will probably know more next week. Tony has a doctor’s appointment Wednesday here to just kind of go over things, and at that point we’ll have a lot better idea of what we’re doing. But for right now it will probably be a week-by-week decision as far as who is in the car.
Q. Austin, I wanted to find out if you planned to drive the Nationwide race at Mid-Ohio this weekend in the Sprint Cup race? How will the logistics of that work for you, if you do? And does it help that they’re within driving distance of each other?
AUSTIN DILLON: Yeah, we’re working all of that out right now. We’re going to be running both of them, and the scheduling is pretty tough this weekend, so we’ll be on doing our best to give equal amount of practice time. The good thing about Mid-Ohio, we have a full test day there Thursday, so we’ll have plenty of time on the track. We have lots of sets of tires, and we’ll be using them up on Thursday.
Qualifying seems to be the issue for the Nationwide race. That is the only part that will be tough. We might have to start in the rear. But I think we’ve done a good job of trying to work out where each party gets a good amount of practice on both cars.
Q. Austin, Max Papis just tweeted that he considered you his godson, and that makes him a godfather. That is kind of a scary thought. But my question to you is you’ve grown up around RCR. I imagine you haven’t been in the SHR car, but you might have been at the shop. I was wondering if you could tell me the things you see similar or do you see anything different at the two shops?
AUSTIN DILLON: I think both shops strive for excellence, so it’s great to be out here at another organization. I’ve been around Tony Stewart a lot, and know how much his passion is for racing, and he’s built a great team over here. That is the biggest thing. He’s the company that I’ve been able to work with, my grandfather’s and coming over here to Stewart.
Today is my first day. I know the way they like to work, and that is put the best equipment on the track they can. And that is the greatest thing about this opportunity. We’re here with a lot of racers, and that’s what I love to do.
Q. Austin, my question is for you. My first one is obviously this is a great opportunity that I don’t think you could turn down. But the fact of the matter is you’re in a pretty tight points battle over there in the Nationwide Series. Do you worry about this with the two races being at different tracks maybe compromising your title hopes for the Nationwide Series?
AUSTIN DILLON: No, we’re going to win the Nationwide Series. That is our main goal. We’ve been fighting for it all year long. This week at Mid-Ohio we’ve had a lot of practice time. The good thing about a road course is the strategies that you’ll be using could actually help us out with the start. It obviously helps to start up front any race you’re at.
But we’ll have a plan. If there was a better place to do it in the Cup race, Michigan is the place for me because I have a lot of laps there and confidence there. So we’re going to do our best to come up with a good strategy for both races. I think we’ll be just fine.
Road courses have been not our strong suit, but we’re getting better at them, and the good thing was we were able to test earlier this past year at Mid-Ohio, so I have some track time. So I’m familiar with the track. I really think it’s going to be a wild race in the road course there in my opinion. It’s a tight road course. We’ll just do our best and try to work our way up to the front with whatever starting position we get.
Q. Greg, if I could ask you, for the time that Tony is out of the car, would you rather have the consistency of maybe the same driver in there week-in and week-out? Or would you like maybe the opportunity to have a bunch of different looks at different people in the 14 just to see what you might learn from a vast amount of driving styles?
GREG ZIPADELLI: No, I think we’d rather have one or two drivers if we can work it out. I think that will give us some consistency, build some communication between the crew and the driver and that will give us our best chance. We’re working on some of that stuff now and hopefully we’ll see it. It may be more than two, maybe three or four. If that’s the case, we’ll look at each individual racetrack and see who is available that runs good at that racetrack and make the best choice we can.
Q. Austin, the experience at Michigan having been there earlier this year, how much does that help if you do have to miss some practice time on Saturday at Michigan?
AUSTIN DILLON: I think it’s really big. Like I said, I’m very confident at Michigan. It’s one of my favorite tracks. We led all the laps in the Nationwide race there this year until we had the left rear flat and ran well in the Cup race. So I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a place that we can really go out and have a good run at this weekend.
Q. Greg, was there any hesitation for the time having an RCR guy in your equipment and Hendrick equipment and maybe what he might learn about what you all have so you might be competing against him down the road?
GREG ZIPADELLI: We’re going to put a blindfold on him, and right before he backs out of the garage we’ll take it off. (Laughing). Then he won’t be able to look.
No — I mean, yes, it will probably be difficult at times, but I think it’s a one-shot deal for right here right now. We’ll see where that goes. We’ll see how it all works. We’ve got to be guarded, and the same with him. He’s got to come over here and trust that we can put something in the car that he can drive. And same time he can come over here and tell us all the things they’re doing too.
So I think on both sides we’ll be respectful of each other, and do the best job we can. I think it will be fine. Besides that, he won’t be there that much anyway. He’s got a lot of flying time.
Q. Greg, you were talking about this weekend at Watkins Glen just about the challenges of the schedule and saying if you layoff the Nationwide schedule at Mid-Ohio and the Cup schedule at Michigan, they don’t match up very well. You said one of the things you could do is find somebody that could run at Michigan or you worried about somebody going back and forth. And your word was it would be half-assed. How is this not going to be in that sense that term that you used or as much the pleasing of partners and that’s what makes this work this weekend, based off of what you said on Friday?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Well, obviously, they have a test day on Thursday. We sat down with Austin. He’s able to give us all day Friday. So he’s given a lot because they’ve got the test day and things. So it’s certainly different as we’ve laid it out. A lot different than it was last week because Thursday would be a disaster. But with the way we’re doing it, he’s going to get a full test day with a ton of tires and a lot of time on the racetrack Thursday. We’re going to get all day Friday where we’ve got no interruptions on our side. I didn’t think that was an option last week. So it is this week, and we’re going to take advantage of it.
Q. Austin, how many races have you scheduled yourself for to run at the Sprint Cup level this year? How protective do you have to be if, in fact, you are going to run for Rookie of the Year at the Sprint Cup level next year?
AUSTIN DILLON: They changed the rule this past year that as long as you designate a series, you can run for Rookie of the Year next year. So I can actually run as many Cup races as I want as long as I have a designated series as the Nationwide.
Q. Knowing that Tony was involved in this choice, how much do you feel like Austin’s victory at Eldora helped him with what he’s able to do there?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Well, I don’t know if it had anything to do with it other than if you look at his record in the Truck Series and the job he’s done in the Nationwide. That’s kind of what we’re basing it off of. He runs good at Michigan. He’s got a good record there. He’s young, and you know, ready to rock and roll there. We’re ready to see what we can accomplish this weekend. Hopefully, that dirt track experience doesn’t come into any play this weekend as far as Michigan goes, because it wouldn’t be very good.
Q. Just to clarify, when you’re talking about how you’re going to handle the substitutions going forward, is there a chance if Austin does really well at Michigan, could he merge as the guy? I know you’re saying you’re looking at each individual racetrack and how people perform. But if Austin’s impressive at Michigan, could he become the guy you want to keep in that seat until Tony comes back?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Absolutely. We’re talking about other races. We just kind of want to get through this week here and then plan ahead. Like I said, things are a little slow. We’ve got a little bit more time this week. We’ll be able to plan weeks out here once we get this Michigan stuff done. Last week was kind of a short week, and we just really focused and concentrated on Watkins Glen and doing the best we could there. Like I said, the next couple days we’ll be able to probably layout the whole schedule for everybody.
Q. Since you talked to Tony after the race on Sunday, can you tell me what he said it was like for him watching the race and seeing somebody else in his car? And what is the earliest you have for him possibly coming back right now?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I did see Tony. I was over there this morning for a while. He’s doing well. As far as when he’ll be back, like I said, I think we’ll know mid week a little bit more on his schedule. He was, you know, he was doing as good as he could. We did talk about what we had for plans there, and he was all on board and felt like we had made good choices. So that was important. I don’t remember the other question.
Q. Are you looking down in two or three weeks of possibly letting him get in the car for a lap or so just to get the points to remain possibly viable if you could go to Richmond and try to win Richmond and somehow make the Chase with two wins or something?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Honestly, if the doctor said we could do that, we’d probably do it. We’re going to do everything that they say, because we want him back a hundred percent and don’t want to — you know, sometimes you can do things sooner than you’re supposed to and make your healing process longer. So we’ll follow on with what the doctor says. If the doctor says in four weeks or six weeks he can do that, then we’ll probably look at those options and do what we can do.
Q. How hard will it be to adjust from the road course in Mid-Ohio back to Michigan which is a pretty speed track in Michigan?
AUSTIN DILLON: I’ve been able to race a lot of dirt and asphalt and doing a lot of different things. So adapting is something that you have to do as a driver. I think as soon as I land, I’ll be tuned into what I’m doing on each track and just switch your mindset so when you get there of what you’re doing. We’ll be using a lot more break at one of them and none at the other.
Q. Mr. Zipadelli, what are your expectations for Austin this weekend in this 14 car?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I think we’re going to go there and run all the laps and try to stay 15th or 20th, and just see from there where we go. We’re going to be setting our goals very obtainable and stay out of trouble. Most important thing is running as many laps as we can. We need to finish the race.
By his track record there in the past, we should do better than those. But you just never know the circumstances, and hopefully we can get him something that he’s comfortable in, and we can go out and race and hopefully do better than that.
Q. I’m curious, will you use this opportunity to do any sort of testing of any parts or pieces or something you’d want to look at for 400 miles that maybe you wouldn’t if you had a car and a guy racing where points are maybe more valuable?
GREG ZIPADELLI: We haven’t had time to think that direction quite yet. Right now we’re still fighting for all the owner points we can get. So finishing these races is very important, and representing our sponsors and doing that in the best way that we can would be by finishing the races, running all the laps and getting the best finish we can. I’m not saying it won’t change, but right now, it’s no different than if Tony was in here. We’re not treating it any different.
Q. Can you say how many calls and texts did you get from prospective drivers? Were there 20 people lobbying for this ride, 30 people, 40 people? Did they wait for you to call them?
GREG ZIPADELLI: I would say it was more in the 50 range. There’s been people that I didn’t even know raced called. And we appreciate everybody reaching out and willing to help. But it’s been interesting, let’s leave it at that.
Q. Greg, has there ever been a point in your career where you’ve been in this similar position, or are you kind of like a rookie right now learning everything with each step of the process?
GREG ZIPADELLI: You mean as far as the drivers and replacing a driver and going through all this stuff?
GREG ZIPADELLI: Yeah, I mean, the only time I’ve really experienced it was at Dover when we had to put Ricky Rudd in for Tony, and that was for one race. So I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s just business as usual. We need a driver, so we picked the best one we can. We put a seat in there and get them comfortable, and try to build some communication and go to the racetrack. That’s pretty much as cut and dry as we can keep it, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.
– photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR