Austin Dillon spent lap 125 of the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 driving in reverse. The victim of a multi-car wreck, he fell a lap off the pace as the crew serviced the car rolling backwards down pit road.
15 minutes later, a raging downpour left Dillon the leader of the race. The No. 3 car drove away from catastrophe, a lone survivor as the field lay in pieces on the backstretch.
Such is life at Daytona International Speedway.
“There’s something about Daytona,” Dillon said after pulling into Victory Lane. “When you pull through the tunnel, things just happen here.”
What happened this time was Mother Nature throwing Daytona into disarray. The race Saturday night was postponed due to weather, producing an unusual 10 a.m. Sunday start. Pressure mounted for over a dozen drivers looking to win in order to secure a postseason bid; three big wrecks in the first 125 laps involved almost 20 cars.
It all peaked with the carnage that came as the pack sailed into turn 1 moments later. The Sunday Daytona heat brought pop-up showers along with it, sparking a sudden deluge that left everyone powerless driving racing tires at 190 miles per hour.
You could pretty much guess what happened next.
NASCAR Vice President of Competition Scott Miller claimed the rain came in a matter of seconds, too quickly for officials to react. When asked if the sport could have done anything different, his answer was simple: “I really don’t.”
It was a response many drivers struggled to accept.
“They had a whole lap to call a caution and tore up a lot of race cars,” Justin Haley claimed. “That was pretty unacceptable.”
Denny Hamlin was blunt, calling for “better officiating” in a move he felt put drivers at risk. Later on, he tweeted about getting in front of the weather, not reacting to when it’s already there.
Two big winners came from the carnage: Dillon and Ryan Blaney, who had fallen behind Martin Truex Jr. in points. Only one of them would advance to the playoffs if Daytona produced a new winner.
Blaney had been among the wounded, running several laps down in a car hampered by an early wreck. But the weather wipeout put so many cars out of the race, it closed the gap between him and a damaged Truex. An eventual eighth-place finish by the No. 19 left Blaney squeaking in on to the grid by three points.
“We’re very fortunate,” Blaney said. “That’s for sure… definitely a roller coaster of emotions, and luckily, it ended on a high for our group.”
Dillon was in the same boat, forced to wait three-plus hours before having to win straight up. With 21 laps remaining, the race resumed with just 10 cars on the lead lap but a formidable foe stalking Dillon: Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric.
At one point, the No. 2 car slipped out front and led 13 laps, putting Dillon in desperation mode. A hard bump of Cindric with three laps to go, sending the rookie sideways, sealed the deal.
“[Dillon] is racing for a playoff spot and totally expected to get drove through,” Cindric said. “It was just a matter of time.”
Will that contact come back to haunt Dillon during the playoffs? For now, he’s just happy to be there, delivering the Richard Childress Racing organization its first three-win season overall since Kevin Harvick left the organization after 2013.
“You take a win any way you can get it,” said owner Richard Childress. “But to come back and win it like that, it was special.”
Green: Underdogs. Just 16 cars finished the race, leading to Cinderella stories all around. Rick Ware Racing, often an afterthought, placed both their cars inside the top 10 (Cody Ware, sixth and David Ragan, ninth). BJ McLeod (seventh) gave both the No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports team plus himself a career-best finish. And Landon Cassill ran fourth with Spire Motorsports, his best NASCAR Cup performance since Talladega almost eight years ago.
Yellow: Ryan Blaney. Making the playoffs has Blaney breathing a sigh of relief. But the way it all went down is way too close for comfort and he enters the postseason off the pace: just one top-5 finish in his last seven starts.
Red: Brad Keselowski. A trendy upset pick, Keselowski didn’t make it to the end of stage one before getting wrecked. The driver/owner missed his first postseason since 2013 after a truly disastrous regular season that included no top-5 finishes, a 100-point penalty for messing with Next Gen parts and just six laps led after the Daytona season opener.
Speeding Ticket: Martin Truex Jr.’s strategy. Truex did everything right in the first two stages, running up front and earning 15 stage points to close the gap between him and Blaney. By the start of the final stage, Blaney was well outside the top 25 and Truex was a potential winning car. All the No. 19 had to do was ride around in the back until late in the race.
So why was Truex running mid-pack to start the final stage? It bit them when a wreck on lap 103 damaged the right front of the No. 19 Toyota. From there, Truex was wounded, barely able to stick with the lead draft instead of contending for the win. It left him vulnerable to too much chaos, wrecks putting too many cars inside the garage and moving Blaney up the running order.
That’s exactly how it went.
“I knew we shouldn’t have been running up there,” Truex said. “We had it. So stupid.”
2021 Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell flashed early speed, leading two laps and arguably the best positioned of all the Cinderella contenders. But it was a tap by Dillon’s teammate, Tyler Reddick, that sent him flying into the wall while running second, sparking the wreck that damaged Truex and leaving the No. 34 headed to the garage on a wrecker.
“I think the 8 was a little bit too far right and got on my right rear corner and turned us into the wall,” McDowell said. “It’s superspeedway racing. We were all going for it there… we had to win, we had to get into the playoffs. We just weren’t able to do it.”