Austin Dillon fought his way into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and shattered Martin Truex Jr.’s hopes with a significant assist from his Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick, following a more than three-hour rain delay.
Dillon needed a number of different events to come together in order for him to win the rain-delayed Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. It was his first victory of the year and second at the circuit.
Dillon survived a dramatic 13-car crash in Turn 1 and took the lead when the race was interrupted by rain after escaping major injury in a collision off Turn 4 on lap 125.
After a 3h19m57-second red-flag period, Austin Cindric, the winner of the 2022 Daytona 500, took the lead, while Dillon lagged behind him until he made the winning move later on lap 158.
Dillon bumped Cindric’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford as the vehicles approached Turn 1, and the Chevrolets of Dillon, Reddick, and Landon Cassill passed as Cindric made an outstanding recovery back to the race on the apron.
The race’s runner-up, Reddick, pulled up alongside Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet and drafted with his teammate to the finish line, fending off Cindric’s last-ditch attempt to claim third and just 0.140s off Dillon.
“There was a lot going on there. I knew that if we got to the white,” Dillon said. “I was afraid somebody would if I waited too long, I was afraid somebody would wreck behind us, so I wanted to go ahead and get the lead.”
“We were able to get it… I had a big run to him, and then I had my teammate, the No. 8 [Reddick], back there.”
“I knew we were in good shape there to the end. He did a good job checking up any kind of run. Just a little too much push there and got him [Cindric] loose.”
Given what was on the line for Dillon, Cindric claimed that the bump was justified.
“I think that’s fair game any race of the season, but that meant a lot for him to win that race,” “He had three cars that were certainly going to be able to work with him,” Cindric said to FOX on pit road after the race.
“I feel like he got the run too late, and then he hit me straight on the entry to the corner. Just glad I saved it; glad I got a shot to still come back up through the field… but I hate losing.”
Due to Ryan Blaney’s three-point advantage over Truex in the final standings of the regular season, Dillon’s victory eliminated Truex from the playoffs and granted Blaney the final qualifying spot.
There was a chance Dillon might win when the race was delayed by heavy rain 21 laps from the finish line.
On lap 138, an unexpected downpour started as the drivers raced toward Turn 1. Denny Hamlin, Justin Haley, and Daniel Hemric spun off near as they lead the race, and the cars following them were unable to stop on the slippery pavement and crashed into the chaos.
The first car to escape the pandemonium on lap 138 at a cautious speed was Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet, despite sustaining damage in a crash at Turn 4 on lap 125 which ended up sliding facing backward on pit road. NASCAR soon declared Dillon the race’s leader.
“We ran into rain in the middle of Turn 1 and just lost it… We had rain down the front,” Hamlin said of the 13-car crash. “So about 10 seconds before we got into Turn 1, it was raining.”
“I’m sure the fans felt it, and then they watched us all pile in there.”
NASCAR decided to hold off on lifting the red flag until the course had dried up. The restart didn’t affect the outcome of the race, but Blaney was able to drive through the crash and finish in 15th place, which was sufficient to knock Truex who finished eighth out of the playoffs.
Only 10 drivers completed on the lead lap, and only 17 were still racing when the race was over. Cassill finished fourth, followed by Noah Gragson.
Blaney’s chances of making the playoffs were seriously jeopardized early in the race. This was after Erik Jones’ No. 43 Petty GMS Chevrolet became loose and lost momentum off Turn 2 on lap 31, putting Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford in third place in the bottom lane behind Jones and Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin’s Toyota was turned toward the infield when Blaney collided with the back of his vehicle. Christopher Bell’s No. 20 Toyota spun behind Blaney as the bottom lane narrowed and sped across the track, slammed Blaney’s Mustang into the outside wall, and seriously damaged Blaney’s right-front quarter. Bell and Brad Keselowski were eliminated from the race by the eight-car incident, keeping Keselowski out of the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
“Somebody wrecked in front of me… I’m not really sure exactly what happened, but there were just a bunch of cars wrecking in front of me,” Keselowski said.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go and couldn’t slow down in time, so I hate it for our team… We had a really fast race car. We were working our way to the front.”
As Blaney continued to lose laps to the lead pack, Truex surged to a second-place finish in stage two, earning nine points. Truex won six points with a fifth-place finish in stage one. A crash on the penultimate lap early in the final stage put an end to Truex’s push, cutting Blaney’s advantage over him in the standings to 10 points.
Second-placed Michael McDowell attempted to overtake leader Joey Logano on lap 102 by pulling out of the way, but Reddick’s off-center impact to McDowell’s back bumper sent the No. 34 Ford hurtling into the outside wall. The collision sparked an eight-car crash that totaled McDowell, Ross Chastain, and William Byron’s cars.
For McDowell, who had restarted in the lead on lap 101, the collision put an end to his Playoff chances. The damage to Truex’s automobile wasn’t fatal, though. But ultimately, it was the damage from that crash that prevented the 2017 series champion from establishing a lead over Blaney substantial enough to claim the final playoff spot.