DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Austin Dillon avoided a massive wreck in the rain to win at Daytona International Speedway and snag a playoff spot in the Cup Series’ regular-season finale Sunday.
Dillon passed Austin Cindric for the lead with three laps to go after a 3 hour, 20 minute red flag for inclement weather. It was an aggressive move that capped a drama-filled race.
Martin Truex Jr. was the biggest loser. Truex looked like he would secure the final postseason berth when the skies opened up, but he faded once the race restarted and allowed Ryan Blaney to make up ground in a wild points scramble.
Blaney finished seven spots behind Truex in the race but three points ahead in the standings.
“You just try to stay optimistic,” Blaney said. “Definitely a roller-coaster of emotions that ended on a high note.”
Dillon’s victory in the No. 3 Chevrolet was as stunning as Blaney’s comeback. Running 16th at the time of the crash, he turned onto the apron to avoid the 15-car melee between Turns 1 and 2 that was caused by a summer shower everyone saw coming. Cars started sliding sideways heading into the high-banked turn, a result of slick tires losing grip on wet asphalt.
Daniel Suarez and Denny Hamlin were running 1-2 when the pack drove into the rain with 23 laps remaining.
“Just throw the caution before the rain came,” Hamlin said, adding that “better officiating” is needed. “We had rain down the front, 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.”
For a second, it looked like 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick was going to make it through the mess and grab the lead as the caution flag flew. But then spinning Ty Dillon — Austin’s little brother — sideswiped Harvick and knocked him into the wreckage.
That allowed Austin Dillon, who started the day 19th in points, to essentially steal a playoff spot. It also created a controversial finish — should NASCAR have halted the race earlier? — and provided the kind of “Game 7” moment NASCAR wanted when it moved the regular-season finale to unpredictable Daytona in 2020.
NASCAR seemed intent on fixing its rain mistake by waiting for a window of sunshine,
“It’s not something you can predict when it’s going to start raining,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition. “Just a super bad situation for everybody.”
Inclement weather was a factor all weekend. Thunderstorms delayed the Xfinity Series race Friday night and pushed the Cup race from Saturday to Sunday morning. More rain was in the forecast Sunday, and dark clouds had surrounded the track for at least half an hour before several drivers reported seeing raindrops on the previous lap.
But it wasn’t enough for NASCAR to stop the race — until it was obvious and too late.
Only 18 cars stayed on track once the green flag dropped and only 10 finished on the lead lap. Dillon’s teammate at Richard Childress Racing, Tyler Reddick, finished second, followed by Cindric, Landon Cassill and Noah Gragson.
Blaney started the day third in points and had the best chance of landing one of the two postseason spots up for grabs.
But Blaney’s chances were seemingly crippled when he got caught in the first crash of the day. Erik Jones got loose at the front of the field, causing a traffic jam at 190 mph that sent several cars spinning across the track. Blaney’s No. 12 Ford sustained enough damage that he couldn’t keep pace with the pack the rest of the day.
Truex closed the gap by finishing fifth and second, respectively, in the first two stages. But he couldn’t hang on after the restart.
Fourteen drivers had previously locked up playoff spots by winning races in 2022: Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Ross Chastain, Cindric, Chase Elliott, Hamlin, Harvick, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Reddick and Suarez.
Kurt Busch also had earned a postseason berth, but he withdrew earlier this week while pulling out of his sixth consecutive race with concussion-like symptoms. That created a second open spot at Daytona, where 15 guys entered the day with postseason hopes.
It set the stage for a wild and aggressive race, even more so than usual at Daytona.
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