from Bob Pokras
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Austin Dillon seemed to have clinched a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, and then NASCAR decided to spend more than three hours drying out a racetrack just to run the final 20 laps at Daytona International Speedway.
NASCAR’s regular-season finale was filled with rain, drama and potential controversy, capped by a final 20 laps where Dillon lost the lead and then regained it with three laps remaining to win the trophy and a spot in the playoffs.
“Going through all that and being able to be the pack in a moment that matters is important,” Dillon said. “It is in all sports [important] to deliver when you have the opportunity to deliver. … It feels good to finish it.”
Ryan Blaneywho was involved in an early crash, finished six laps down but 15th – only 17 of 37 cars were running at the end – and limped his way into a playoff spot as an injured Martin Truex Jr. finished eighth to finish three points behind Blaney for a playoff spot available to a driver who was winless during the regular season.
Dillon was leading and Truex was in a playoff spot when the race, already postponed from Saturday night due to rain, was cut short for 3 hours and 19 minutes after a Sunday afternoon storm. NASCAR could have declared the race official after 140 of the scheduled 160 laps (because the race had passed the halfway mark), but decided to race the regular-season finale to the end.
It was a bit of a miracle that Dillon was even in that position. On the lap before the rain delay, drivers were jockeying for position knowing rain was coming and the race could end when 15 cars crashed on a wet track when heavy rain began to hit the track and NASCAR didn’t care how must. to prevent the massacre.
Dillon, who was involved in an earlier crash, was running 15th when the crash occurred and he pulled away from the carnage for the lead. When the race restarted he lost the lead soon after the race restarted but was able to catch the leader Austin Cindric to push him down the track and regain the top spot with three laps remaining.
Austin Dillon wins at Daytona in wild finish over Cindric, Reddick
Austin Dillon wins at Daytona to close out the playoffs at the wild end over Austin Cindric and teammate Tyler Reddick.
Dillon got a push from his teammate Tyler Reddick over the final few laps, and Reddick opted to settle for second instead of trying to make a bold move for the win. Reddick, who has already won twice this year so he was already in the playoffs, helped teammate Richard Childress in the race a month after announcing he would leave the team after the 2023 season for 23XI Racing.
“He’s been, in a way, the inspiration for me to get my game back,” Dillon said. “He’s got a lot of speed and shows it over and over again… When he got to my rear bumper, I knew I could trust him.”
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16-driver playoff field (15 winners and then one driver, Blaney, in points): Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Reddick, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Blaney, Chase Briscoe, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell, Joey Logano, William Byron, Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez. Our takeaways from a wet weekend in Daytona:
Truex sees playoff bid slip away
Truex was in relatively good shape after the first two stages as he had closed the gap to 10 points behind Blaney – and with Blaney a few laps down, all he had to do was stay out of trouble and he would surely be fine .
But he then ran into trouble after being involved in an incident with 58 laps remaining. His car was damaged enough that he was not guaranteed to finish the 11 points ahead of Blaney that he needed. He dropped five points after the race restarted and Blaney climbed 14 points as he caught drivers whose cars were wrecked before the delay.
“It’s bad,” Truex said. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it. You run your ass all year, you work hard and you try to do all the things you need to and you get three points, it’s hard to swallow.”
A massive wreck collects nearly the entire field at Daytona
As rain approaches, the front two cars break free and a wreck collects nearly the entire field at Daytona International Speedway. Austin Dillon makes it.
Truex said there was too much damage to hold the points he needed over the final 20 laps.
“No emotion,” Truex said. “You come here and compete. It’s a different race. You just come here and try to do it. We did our best and it wasn’t enough.”
Blaney can smile
Blaney was involved in a crash on lap 31 and had to sweat out the rest of the day, including a rain delay, as Truex would have clinched the playoff spot had the race not restarted.
“I had fully accepted the fact that it could rain at any moment and we would be out,” Blaney said.
Once racing resumed, Blaney also had to accept the fact that many things were out of his control.
“You just hope everything goes wild and it looks like the 19th [of Truex] I kind of got locked in there and lost some points and couldn’t get them back,” Blaney said. “There was really nothing I could do.
“You’re just walking around trying to complete laps and whatever happens, happens.”
From race start to finish, it was more of a six-hour roller coaster for Blaney.
“I’m going to go home and crack open a beer and relax a little because it was a stressful day,” Blaney said. “It was a long weekend… You get wrecked and then you have a three-hour rain delay.
“I’m definitely mentally exhausted.”
NASCAR official reviewed
Of course, the drivers who were leading the race when they crashed were critical of NASCAR for not calling the caution a little earlier when it started to rain.
“I feel like they have a lot of technology to know that rain is very, very close,” said Daniel Suarez, who was driving at the time.
“I don’t think it’s difficult not to put us in that position.”
Denny Hamlin, who was battling Suarez for the lead at the time, said the way to prevent it is with better referees.
“I got to the top at the right time, but also at a bad time because we were the first to get to the rain,” Hamlin said.
NASCAR senior vice president Scott Miller said the sanctioning body threw out the yellow flag as soon as it saw the rain.
“We had been avoiding the weather a little bit for a while,” Miller said. “Nothing had hit. And all of a sudden there was that shower.
“The speedster was sitting there on the inside [behind the wall there]. It was still dry when they were destroyed. … Just a super bad situation for everybody.”
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
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