DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Austin Dillon’s wife was doing a rain dance during an extended weather delay in hopes the skies would open up again and wash away the rest of the race.
“I got upset,” Dillon said. “I told him, ‘Don’t do that.'”
There was no bad luck on this one. Dillon avoided a massive crash in the rain to take the lead before a red flag and returned more than three hours later to finish an unlikely win at Daytona International Speedway and earn a playoff berth in the Series’ regular-season finale. of the Cup on Sunday.
Dillon passed Austin Cindric with three laps to go and was unchallenged down the stretch. It was an aggressive move that capped a drama-filled race and sparked a wild celebration for a team that is usually a factor at Daytona.
“It’s crazy,” said Dillon, whose fourth career Cup win ended a 78-race winless streak. “You never give up and you have faith. We had some tough endings this year, like Charlotte. I beat myself up for it. I made a good move and just didn’t finish. We finished it today.”
Martin Truex Jr. was the biggest loser. Truex looked like he would clinch the final postseason spot when rain halted the race with 21 laps remaining, but he faded after the restart and allowed Ryan Blaney to make up ground in a fight for points.
Blaney finished seven places behind Truex in the race but three points ahead in the standings.
“Just try to stay optimistic,” Blaney said. “Definitely a roller coaster of emotions that ended on a high note.”
Added Truex: “We gave away a lot of points throughout the season. It is what it is.”
Dillon’s victory in the No. 3 Chevrolet was as impressive as Blaney’s comeback. Running 16th at the time of the crash, he swerved onto the apron to avoid the 15-car melee between Turns 1 and 2 that was caused by a summer rain that everyone saw coming. Cars began to slide sideways heading into the high banked corner, as a result of the slippery tires losing grip on the wet tarmac.
Daniel Suarez and Denny Hamlin were running 1-2 when the pack drove through the rain with 23 laps remaining.
“Just throw out the yellow flag before it rains,” Hamlin said, adding that “better officiating” is needed. I’m sure the fans felt it and then they saw us all crammed in there.”
For a second, it looked like 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick was going to get through the mess and take the lead as the caution flag flew. But then Ty Dillon, Austin’s little brother, hit Harvick from the side and knocked him into the rubble.
That allowed Austin Dillon, who started Day 19 in points, to essentially steal a playoff spot. It also created a controversial ending: should NASCAR have stopped the race earlier? — and provided the kind of “Game 7” moment NASCAR wanted when it moved the regular-season finale to the unpredictable Daytona in 2020.
NASCAR seemed intent on fixing its no-call by waiting for a sunny window.
“It’s not something you can predict when it’s going to start raining,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. “Just a super bad situation for everyone.”
Inclement weather was a factor throughout the weekend. Thunderstorms delayed the Xfinity Series race on Friday night and delayed the Cup race from Saturday to Sunday morning. More rain was forecast on 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 remained on the track once the green flag lowered and only 10 finished on the lead lap. Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Cindric, Landon Cassill and Noah Gragson.
Defending series champion Kyle Larson was the first driver out of the race. Larson drove his car to the garage after 14 laps with a timing belt problem. He finished last in the 37-car field and missed out on extra points in the playoffs.
It was Larson’s third straight DNF at Daytona, including crashes that ended his last two starts at the famed track. He now hasn’t won in 16 Cup starts at Daytona.
“I think there’s one positive: I didn’t get into a crash,” Larson said.
THE FUTURE OF BUSCH
This may have been Kyle Busch’s last race at Daytona for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch is out of contract for next season after his sponsor decided to pull out of NASCAR at the end of 2022. Joe Gibbs Racing, with the help of Toyota, has worked to find a wealthy replacement for M&M’s and Mars Inc., but if nothing comes of it well in the coming months, Busch will drive elsewhere next year.
Busch declined to enter contract negotiations Saturday, refusing to say whether he turned down an earlier offer from JGR.
“This is not the place to start airing dirty laundry,” Busch said. “Trust me: in time, things will work out. And what happens, happens.”
The two-time NASCAR champion (2015, 2019) has 60 career Cup wins, the most since joining JGR in 2008. He wants to stay in the No. 18 Toyota, and the manufacturer wants it back.
“Kyle Busch is our 60-homer hitter and it would be foolish not to put everything on the line to keep him in the family, and that’s what we continue to do,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “This is not just an offensive consideration. I don’t want to compete against an (angry) Kyle Busch. Wherever it lands, it’s going to do some damage.”
UNTIL NEXT TIME
The first round of the playoffs begins in Darlington next Sunday. Joey Logano won the May race at the track, with Ford and Chevy claiming 19 of the top 20 spots.
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