Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona: Austin Dillon scores walk-off win to make NASCAR playoffs

Last year, on the last lap at Daytona, Austin Dillon saw his NASCAR playoff hopes end when he was involved in a massive crash on the final lap in Turn 3. Dillon’s fortunes were reversed on Sunday, as he missed the carnage, won the race and made the NASCAR playoffs in thrilling fashion.

After going from 16th to first by avoiding a massive crash in Turn 1 with 23 laps to go, Dillon had to wait out a long rain delay and then earn the victory in the Coke Zero Sugar 400. With three laps to go, he put the bumper to race leader Austin Cindric in Turn One, taking the lead and then taking the checkered flag with a push from Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick.

Dillon’s victory is his first of the 2022 season, the fourth of his career and his second at Daytona. But most important: Dillon’s win puts him into the NASCAR playoffs, giving him a chance to race for the championship while bumping Martin Truex Jr. below the cutoff line and out of playoff contention.

After the checkered flag, Dillon attributed the victory to “crazy faith” — particularly the faith of his wife Whitney.

“She was dancing in the rain –- I got upset with her, I said ‘Don’t be doing that!’ She said, ‘Lord, when you have faith like me, you don’t have to worry about it.’ I was like ‘OK, OK, I got you baby,'” Dillon recounted to NBC Sports. “(Son) Ace was back there with me — we were watching Paw Patrol, watching the Carolina Cowboys win the PBR event — and they said ‘Hey, go get ready’. So we stayed ready.”

Dillon also noted how big the help from Reddick was.

“I’ve got to thank my teammate Tyler Reddick … Man, we’re in the playoffs!” he said.

Coke Zero Sugar 400 unofficial results

  1. #3 – Austin Dillon
  2. #8 – Tyler Reddick
  3. #2 – Austin Cindrich
  4. #77 – Landon Cassill
  5. #62 – Noah Gragson
  6. #51 – Cody Ware
  7. #78 – BJ McLeod
  8. #19 – Martin Truex Jr.
  9. #15 – David Ragan
  10. #18 – Kyle Busch

The big one

After heavy rain forced the race to be postponed from Saturday night, a 10 am Sunday morning start gave NASCAR a window to try and complete all 400 miles before any more rain hits Daytona Beach. But as the second half of the race progressed, it became increasingly clear that the field was trying to outrun the weather as much as they were trying to outrun each other.

Then, the sky opened up in Turn 1 with 23 laps to go. The entire lead pack slid helplessly into each other and into the wall, eliminating virtually all of the leaders as Dillon and a select few other cars snuck through.

After getting out of their cars, several of the drivers involved in the accident fumed at NASCAR for not throwing the caution earlier. Denny Hamlin said that “better officiating” could have prevented the accident. Justin Haley called the situation “unacceptable” and “ridiculous,” claiming that NASCAR had an entire lap to call a caution for rain. Daniel Suarez expressed similar sentiments suggesting NASCAR should have thrown a caution before the rain hit Turn 1 and the crash occurred.

Speaking to the NBC broadcast booth, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller explained that race control had all the information it needed to judge whether or not the track was still dry. Just before the accident occurred, the pace car had reported that it was still dry, leading to Miller citing the rainfall as a sudden one that officials could not have acted against.

“We really couldn’t do anything about that. It’s not something that you can predict, when it’s gonna start raining,” Miller told NBC Sports. “So just a super bad situation for everybody.”

After the crash, a red flag of nearly three and a half hours ensued before the rain stopped and NASCAR was able to dry the racetrack, setting up a 16-lap run to the finish.

The bubble bursts

Thanks to Kurt Busch’s withdrawal from the playoffs due to injury, the regular season finale saw two playoff spots available for Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. to take as long as there were no new winners. However, not only was there a new winner, but the battle for the final playoff spot on points turned into a nailbiter all the way to the checkered flag.

With five laps to go in Stage 1, a multi-car crash off Turn 2 collected Blaney, sending him into the outside wall and causing him to sustain heavy right front fender damage. Blaney’s team was able to keep his car running, but his heavily-damaged vehicle was uncompetitive and limped laps down throughout the rest of the race.

That put Martin Truex Jr. in prime position to overtake Blaney in points, as he scored 15 stage points. But Truex sustained major right front fender damage in a separate accident down the backstretch, affecting the way his car performed in the draft for the rest of the race.

Had the race been declared official during the rain delay, Blaney would have been knocked out of the playoffs. But when the race resumed, Blaney was able to gain multiple positions on the track, overtaking drivers who had fallen out of the race due to crash damage. Meanwhile, Truex lost the lead draft and ended up losing positions, falling to the back of the lead pack and finishing eighth. With Dillon winning the race, Blaney earned the final spot in the playoffs by three points over Martin Truex Jr. with a 15th place finish, eliminating the 2017 Cup Series champion from title contention.

“We’re very fortunate, that’s for sure,” Blaney told NBC Sports. “Was not a good day getting going, getting tore up early. And at that point, our fate was not really in our hands. All we could do was try to keep working on it and fix it to where we could make laps. Thankfully we were able to get enough cars throughout the wrecks that we kind of just kept moving up and were able to get in.

For Truex, he said his car was “just not fast enough” in the end.

“Just not fast enough to keep up with those guys,” Truex told NBC Sports. “We got the restart we needed and got in a decent spot there, just couldn’t keep up. I was wide open the whole last run there. It’s a shame. It stinks. Just too much damage to have enough speed to do what we needed to do. … We gave away plenty of points throughout the season. It is what it is.”

Race Results Rundown

  • Cindric wasn’t exactly thrilled with Austin Dillon putting the bumper to him, as it cost Cindric a chance at winning both the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in the same season. Had he done so, it would have made him the first driver to sweep the season at Daytona since Jimmie Johnson in 2013.
  • The attrition level gave several unlikely drivers opportunities to win and opportunities for career days: Landon Cassill tied his best career finish in fourth, his first such result since 2014. Cody Ware contended for the win on the final lap and finished sixth, the best finish of his career and his first-ever finish inside the top 15. BJ McLeod finished a career-best seventh, improving on a ninth-place run in this same race a year ago.
  • Statistical oddity in the top 10: David Ragan’s ninth-place finish was the first such result of his entire Cup career. That means that he has now finished in every possible position in a Cup race — from first through 40th — at least once.
  • Only 10 drivers finished on the lead lap, the fewest of any Daytona race since the 2018 Daytona 500 — which also saw Austin Dillon win and 10 cars finish on the lead lap. Just 17 cars were left running at the finish, the fewest of any superspeedway race since only 14 cars were left running at the finish at Talladega in the fall of 2017.

Next race

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin with one of the sport’s oldest traditions, and one of its crown jewel races: The Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, next Sunday at 6 pm ET on the USA Network.

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