DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Austin Dillon’s wife was doing a rain dance during a lengthy weather delay in hopes of getting the skies to open up again and wash out the rest of the race.
“I got upset,” Dillon said. “I said, ‘Don’t be doing that.’”
There was no jinxing this one. Dillon avoided a massive wreck in the rain to take the lead before a red flag and returned more than three hours later to finish off an improbable victory at Daytona International Speedway and snag a playoff spot in the Cup Series’ regular season finale 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 set off a wild celebration for a team that’s usually a factor at Daytona.
“It’s crazy,” Dillon said. “You just never give up and have faith. We had some tough finishes this year, like Charlotte. I beat myself up over that. I made a good move and just didn’t finish it off. Today we finished it off.”
Martin Truex Jr. was the biggest loser. Truex looked like he would secure the final postseason berth 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 points scramble.
Blaney finished seven spots behind Truex in the race but three points ahead in the standings.
“You just try to stay optimistic,” Blaney said. “Definitely a roller-coaster of emotions that ended on a high note.”
Added Truex: “We gave away plenty of points throughout the season. It is what it is.”
Dillon’s victory in the No. 3 Chevrolet was as stunning as Blaney’s comeback. Running 16th at the time of the crash, he turned onto the apron to avoid the 15-car melee between Turns 1 and 2 that was caused by a summer shower everyone saw coming. Cars started sliding sideways heading into the high-banked turn, a result of slick tires losing grip on wet asphalt.
Daniel Suarez and Denny Hamlin were running 1-2 when the pack drove into the rain with 23 laps remaining.
“Just throw the caution before the rain came,” Hamlin said, adding that “better officiating” is needed. “We had rain down the front, so about 10 seconds before we got into Turn 1, it was raining. I’m sure the fans felt it and then they watched us all pile in there.”
For a second, it looked like 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick was going to make it through the mess and grab the lead as the caution flag flew. But then spinning Ty Dillon — Austin’s little brother — sideswiped Harvick and knocked him into the wreckage.
That allowed Austin Dillon, who started the day 19th in points, to essentially steal a playoff spot. It also created a controversial finish — should NASCAR have halted the race earlier? — and provided the kind of “Game 7” moment NASCAR wanted when it moved the regular season finale to unpredictable Daytona in 2020.
The first round of the playoffs begins at Darlington next Sunday. Joey Logano won the May race at the track, with Ford and Chevy claiming 19 of the top 20 spots.