DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — One by one they fell by the wayside.
Thirteen drivers entered Sunday’s rain-delayed Coke Zero Sugar 400 with an opportunity to earn a NASCAR Cup Series playoff berth with a victory as the 26-race regular season concluded at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
One by one they met their fate, most via multi-car accidents and many in the dreaded “Big One,” which came with 23 laps remaining when rain started falling in turn one.
Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher, David Gilliland, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Haley, Bubba Wallace and a host of others were collected in the massive accident, while Austin Dillon, who had been a lap down prior to the previous yellow flag, skated through and was in the lead when the red flag waved two laps later.
After a 3-hour-and-19-minute delay, Dillon made a late pass of Austin Cindric and held on for the victory, punching a ticket to the playoffs for he and the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 team.
It was a day full of ups and downs for the playoff contenders, including Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., who entered the day in the 15th and 16th spots in the standings.
Both were involved in crashes and Blaney finished six laps down, but it wasn’t that simple.
When the race resumed after the rain delay, Truex restarted seventh and was 13 points ahead of Blaney, but while Blaney continued to pass cars that had been eliminated by crashes, Truex struggled with speed.
In the end, Truex finished eighth, but Blaney claimed 15th and the final playoff spot by a mere three points over Truex.
Blaney will be the seventh seed in the reshuffled playoff standings, with Dillon slotting in 16th.
“It definitely didn’t start out very good,” Blaney said. “We had to battle through adversity all day, but props to the whole 12 group for continuing to work on it and fix it and just trying to keep it in the game. After that wreck everything was kind of out of our hands and we were just trying to do the best we could to try and complete all the laps. You never know what can happen, so props to them. Fortunately, we were able to gain some points there at the end and locked us in. It was definitely nerve racking, but a lot of props to the 12 team.”
Truex, the 2017 Cup Series champion, was disappointed but candid after missing the playoffs.
“We just had too much damage at the end,” Truex said. “We had a good spot on the restart and we got a good restart. We got the 2 (Austin Cindric) up front, which is what we were trying to do, but just couldn’t keep up. Just too much damage. It’s s shame.
“We knew it was going to be tough with so many cars out of the race and the distance between me and the 12 (Ryan Blaney). It was going to be hard to hang on to fourth or better with a car that torn up.”
Blaney credited his team with staying in the game.
“It was hurt pretty badly. We couldn’t keep up with the draft for a while because we just had so much damage,” he said. “By the time we got five or six laps down you try to stay optimistic about these things. It’s easy to kind of get down on it and you just try to stay positive. Luckily, that positivity worked out for us, but definitely not an ideal start to the day. Luckily, all of our hard work by staying in it paid off at the end.”
While Blaney and Truex were the key players in the playoff chase, several of the drivers who had a chance to win their way into the event were involved in crashes along the way.
Almirola was among those with an opportunity to win his way in whose day ended in a crash.
“A few things didn’t work out. I was in position and there was maybe a move I could have made differently to try and get to the lead, but my help that was pushing me – the 17 – wasn’t clear, so I didn’t take the run,” Almirola said. “Looking back on it, maybe I wish I would have, but I would have just been in the lead and I would have been the first one to the rain, so I feel like I would have wrecked either way. I just hate it. I obviously wanted to win so we could get our team into the playoffs, but we’ve still got a lot of racing left to do this year and proud of everybody on our race team. I’m just thankful.”
Michael McDowell was eliminated in a crash earlier in the race while trying to get the lead with the rain approaching.
“I’m not really sure what happened. Obviously, we were all racing pretty hard there knowing that there’s weather coming and we’re past halfway,” McDowell said. “I just have to go back and look at it. I don’t want to say anything silly, but felt like I had a good push from the 8 and had a run on the 22 and pulled out. I’m not sure if the 8 got me a little bit or if the 22 just blocked a little bit too hard.
“It’s superspeedway racing trying to get ourselves locked into the playoffs in our Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang. We were going for it. You can see the weather is right there, so it’s unfortunate. We fought so hard to put ourselves in position to have a shot at making the playoffs. I felt like that was our shot. We had to go for it and it didn’t work out, but if I’d have lifted and the rain would have came and finished second, I would have been pretty upset with myself.”