Austin Dillon qualifies for NASCAR playoffs with win at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH — Coca-Cola Zero Sugar 400 winner Austin Dillon was out front for more than three hours, lost it in a matter of minutes and took it back with two laps to go.

Dillon didn’t look back to a day when only the checkered flag would serve.

A wet, wild and up-and-down day at Daytona International Speedway ended with Dillon destined for the NASCAR postseason.

“Man, we’re in the playoffs,” Dillon exclaimed exhausted and excited. “It’s an amazing day.”

On lap 158 of 160, Dillon passed reigning Daytona 500 champion Austin Cindric, a bold move during an action-packed regular-season finale delayed 3 hours and 20 minutes by thunderstorms and completed a day late during a weekend. week full of weather.

Dillion’s fourth Cup Series win was her first in 79 races since her 2020 win at Texas Motor Speedway. Sunday’s performance earned him one of two remaining spots in the 16-driver Cup Series playoffs.

Ryan Blaney earned the final postseason spot based on points standings.

The 28-year-old entered the day winless but third in the standings and well-positioned for the postseason until his car was extensively damaged during a multi-vehicle crash on lap 30. Blaney’s racing team was able to keep his Ford Mustang No. 21 running. the track, where he logged enough laps to edge veteran Martin Truex Jr. by 3 points despite finishing six laps behind.

“That’s definitely a lot more stressful than I wanted to come here,” Blaney said. “Your day can start like this, and you just stick with it and stay in the game.

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“Definitely a roller coaster of emotions.”

Dillon endured the emotional wringer himself.

Dillon entered the day 19th in points and needed a win to qualify for the playoffs for the second time since 2018.

With dark clouds overhead and rain approaching, time was running out. Driving the No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt, Dillon was stuck in 16th place as he exited Turn 1 with 23 laps to go.

The chaos of multiple cars on a slippery track suddenly presented an opportunity.

Daniel Suarez and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin were running 1-2 and side by side when they each turned in opposite directions. When a 15-car hodgepodge ensued, Dillion dove to the back of the track and drove into daylight, and potentially to victory.

Hamlin took a hit, but pulled himself together enough to question the organizers for not stopping the race.

“About 10 seconds into Turn 1, it was raining,” Hamlin said. “I’m sure the fans felt it and then they saw us all crammed in there.”

NASCAR’s Scott Miller defended the decision.

“We were at the top of climate monitoring,” he said. “It was a sudden downpour. We couldn’t do anything about it.”

Sitting up front as the rain lashed the facility, Dillon could do nothing but wait for a decision.

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“I thought they would call it for quite a while,” said Hall of Famer Richard Childress, Dillon’s grandfather and a car owner.

Given the result, Childress was glad the race was going on, albeit with a skeleton crew.

On a day with 19 different leaders and millions of dollars in vehicle damage, only 18 of the 37 cars were running at the restart. Only 10 were on the lead lap.

Dillon quickly lost his lead to Cindric, but he didn’t relent to earn victory No. 2 at the famed superspeedway, where his 2018 Daytona 500 win came 20 years after Earnhardt’s only victory in the race. Dillon also experienced one of the scariest moments in track history when his car flew into the fence in the 2015 summer race, injuring several fans.

Aware of the fickle nature of the sport’s most famous track, Dillon knew anything could happen at any time on Sunday. When he saw his opportunity, Dillion ended Cindric’s bid to become the first driver to win both Daytona races in the same season since Jimmie Johnson in 2013.

“Going through all of that and being able to be decisive in a big moment is important,” Dillon said. “To us in all sports, right? Deliver when you have the opportunity to deliver…”

Dillon now aims to maintain his good fortune, starting Sunday night at Darlington Raceway during the opening race of the playoffs.

Fourteen drivers had previously clinched playoff spots by winning races in 2022 (in points order): Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, Joey Logano, William Byron, Kevin Harvick, Hamlin, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Kyle Busch, Suarez, Cindric and Alex Bowman.

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @osgators.

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