NASCAR Barometer: Dillon Snags Playoff Spot With Daytona Win

NASCAR Barometer: Dillon Snags Playoff Spot With Daytona Win

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Inclement weather heavily impacted the Coke Zero Sugar 400, canceling practice and qualifying, delaying the start from Saturday night to Sunday morning, and again halting proceedings 21 laps to the finish. The impacts only increased tension as the final regular-season race held the playoff hopes of the drivers in the balance. Once the race was underway, the high stakes produced aggressive driving throughout the field with some drivers hunting to grab as many points as possible with others going for the victory. By the finish, about half the field was out of the race, and the final weather interruption from weather set up a dash to the finish. Austin Dillon, who emerged first following the lap 139 crash and lead through the final rain delay, battled Austin Cindric with just a handful of other cars in tow for the lead in the final laps. Cindric held the upper hand and was on his way to sweeping victories at the track, when Dillon moved him out of the way in turn 1 to move back into the lead to score the win and claim one of the two open playoff positions. 

Dillon's first win of the season meant only one playoff position was left to be filled on points. The fight between Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. for that spot came down to the wire, too. Truex closed the points gap while Blaney was hamstrung after getting caught in the first crash of the race. After Truex was also

Inclement weather heavily impacted the Coke Zero Sugar 400, canceling practice and qualifying, delaying the start from Saturday night to Sunday morning, and again halting proceedings 21 laps to the finish. The impacts only increased tension as the final regular-season race held the playoff hopes of the drivers in the balance. Once the race was underway, the high stakes produced aggressive driving throughout the field with some drivers hunting to grab as many points as possible with others going for the victory. By the finish, about half the field was out of the race, and the final weather interruption from weather set up a dash to the finish. Austin Dillon, who emerged first following the lap 139 crash and lead through the final rain delay, battled Austin Cindric with just a handful of other cars in tow for the lead in the final laps. Cindric held the upper hand and was on his way to sweeping victories at the track, when Dillon moved him out of the way in turn 1 to move back into the lead to score the win and claim one of the two open playoff positions. 

Dillon's first win of the season meant only one playoff position was left to be filled on points. The fight between Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. for that spot came down to the wire, too. Truex closed the points gap while Blaney was hamstrung after getting caught in the first crash of the race. After Truex was also caught up with damage, it became a fight for survival with both drivers clinging to every position possible to keep their championship hopes alive. The final handful of laps saw Blaney recover multiple positions as cars continued to drop out of the race, giving him a scant three-point advantage at the checkered flag to put him into the championship battle with Truex left on the sideline.

Drivers and teams have just a few days to put Daytona in the rearview mirror and focus on the playoffs. Darlington Raceway will kick off the elimination rounds with its traditional Labor Day weekend spot on the calendar. The 16 playoff contenders have just three races to avoid elimination and advance in the championship hunt in one of the tightest playoff fields since the format debuted. Joey Logano won last time out at the track, leading 107 of 293 laps from pole to win in May.

UPGRADE

Austin Dillon – Dillon survived rain delays and crashes to earn himself another victory at Daytona and the spot in the 2022 playoffs that comes along with it. He started the weekend's adventure in 21st after rain canceled practice and qualifying. He wasn't immune to the many crashes, at one point spinning and reversing down pit road. However, he avoided significant damage and had a car that could compete at the front of the draft in the final laps. A bump on leader Cindric in the final laps enabled him to put his No. 3 machine back out front to defend to the finish. The win meant he was the 15th different winner so far this season and joins teammate Tyler Reddick, to compete for the series title.

Joey Logano – Logano used a one-lap shootout to get to the lead and win the opening stage Sunday at Daytona. It was a good afternoon for the former champion despite him getting caught up in some of the race's crashed. Logano was fortunate enough to suffer relatively less damage than much of the field and powered home to a 12th-place finish. The playoff point from Sunday's stage win, in addition to his haul from the rest of the regular season, pushed him to second in the standings for the start of the playoffs. He will start his playoff quest with a 20-point advantage over 16th, which will give him a bit of comfort through at least the first round of elimination races. Logano won for the first time at Darlington earlier this season, leading 107 laps from pole, and has nine top-10s from 17 career starts at the track.

Austin Cindric – Daytona, and superspeedways in general, continued to be a happy hunting ground for Cindric in his first full season of Cup competition. He won the Daytona 500 in February, and was in position to sweep races at the track as he led with less than five laps to go in the attrition filled Coke Zero Sugar 400. In the end, a bump in the rear that forced Cindric into a high-speed save to keep from crashing was the difference. Cindric saved the car from crashing, but lost the lead to Dillon, who went on to win the race. Cindric's third-place finish was his fifth top-five finish of the season, and he will now compete in the playoffs in his rookie season. The first playoff track is Darlington, where Cindric finished 18th earlier this season, and he will start the elimination races 14th among the 16 championship contenders.

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates bunched together at the front of the pack at the end of Sunday's second stage with Busch taking the stage win, pulling Truex to a runner-up segment finish to help is playoff quest. The stage win was important to Busch for the playoff point that he carries into the elimination races. He will start that journey 11th among the 16 contenders. His 10th-place finish to close out the regular season was his 13th top-10 of the year, too. Busch now enters the championship fray with three finishes of 11th or better in the last five races and looking for a bit more consistency. Various issues have been preventing him from achieving his best, and the distraction of not having a firm idea of where he will race in 2023 and beyond may be holding him back. Busch's last two Darlington races ended in crashes, but he does have a 2008 win at the circuit.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney's playoff hopes took a heavy hit late in the first stage, as he got caught in a crash at the front of the field, heavily damaging his machine. The team made significant repairs to get Blaney back on track and out of NASCAR's damaged vehicle policy, getting up to speed for the final lap of the stage. It looked certain that the team would lose their points advantage to Truex, but their persistence paid off, as Blaney simply kept making laps. As the race wore on and more drivers dropped out, Blaney recovered his points advantage and narrowly claimed the 16th and final playoff position. Just three spots was the difference for making the playoffs or not, and it was Team Penske's No. 12 team that got the job done to race for the 2022 series championship. Blaney has just one Darlington top-10, an eighth-place finish in the spring race last season. He was 17th at the track earlier this season.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson was the first out of the race Sunday at Daytona. The No. 5 suffered a mechanical issue early in the first stage, sending him straight to the garage and out of the proceedings. The pain was especially acute considering the playoff point impact of not finishing higher in the regular-season standings after an early Daytona exit. While the points would have been helpful, Larson should still be one of the drivers expected to advance deep into the elimination races, potentially even a contender for the final four. The first stop on that journey is this coming week at Darlington where Larson has seven top-10 finishes from nine career starts. However, despite leading 30 laps at the track earlier this season he also suffered an engine failure and left with a 36th-place finish.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex grabbed stage points in the opening segment Sunday and then backed it up with a second-place finish in the second segment in an effort to cut his points gap to Blaney. Things were looking good for him to get the job done until he was caught in the second big wreck of the day, which destroyed his right-front fender. The crew made quick repairs and got him back into the race and ahead of playoff rival Blaney on points, though. As other cars dropped out of the race in the final 20 laps the gap to Blaney shrunk and ended with the No. 19 team a mere three points out of the playoff positions, leaving Truex out of the 20222 championship picture. Truex is a two-time Darlington winner, and he led 28 laps before crashing out of the race there in May.

Chase Elliott – Things had been going well for Elliott, but the last two regular-season races have been a step backward. After picking up the regular-season championship at Watkins Glen a late clash with teammate Larson erased a potential win for the No. 9. Daytona was a chance to get any lost momentum back when rain washed out practice and qualifying, giving Elliott a front-row start. The race got off well with Elliott leading much of the first stage, but he was not immune to the crashes once they came. Elliott, like many, got caught in the thick of things and was eventually eliminated from the race in the final crash before rain paused the race 21 laps from the finish. Elliott has done enough work to get his playoffs started in a good way, though. He enters this week's race at Darlington, where he finished fifth earlier this season, 15 points ahead of Joey Logano at the top of the standings.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin's trend of having pace but not converting it to a race win struck again Sunday at Daytona. Hamlin raced to the front of the field after starting 19th, picking up a third-place stage finish in the second segment while helping Truex to gather as many stage points as possible. He accomplished that despite being part of the first big crash of the race, which kept him from potentially winning the first stage. Ultimately, he was collected in the last big wreck of the day. That last crash was too much to overcome and Hamlin exited the race in 25th position, which was his second finish 20th or worse in the final two regular-season races. Hamlin will start the playoffs tied on points with Blaney, just eight points ahead of 16th. He has four prior Darlington victories and is expected to advance deep into the playoffs, but will need more race wins to score his first series championship.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Starting Positions 30th and Lower – The final regular-season race of the season was one for the back of the field. The final eight starters in Sunday's field amassed an impressive average finish of 12th in the race. In fact, only two of those last eight starters failed to finish among the top 11, and six of them finished in the top 10. Top-10 finishers included Landon Cassill, Noah Gragson, Cody Ware, B.J. McLeod and David Ragan, with Bubba Wallace coming home 11th. The race's carnage made the afternoon a test of perseverance, which the back of the grid seemed more able to navigate. To underscore the wild results, the only driver to start and finish in the top 10 was playoff competitor Reddick. There aren't many days the back of the grid gets highlighted, and their chances to do so will diminish as the playoffs get underway, which made it perfect timing for them to achieve success Sunday at Daytona.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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