Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Austin Dillon Dodges Rain, Wrecks for 11th-Hour Playoff Bid

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

It took almost 24 hours, almost three hours under the red flag for rain and multiple uniforms. But Austin Dillon still made a late charge to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400, putting two Richard Childress Racing cars in the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

After persistent rain Saturday night pushed the NASCAR Cup Series race to Sunday morning, the field took to the track at Daytona International Speedway for the last race of the regular season and one more chance at a title run this year. Dillon took advantage of that chance when the opportunity came to him, cashing in on a postseason bid.

Dillon somehow threaded his way through a multi-car crash that came when the rains did, the finish seemingly in sight. Had the race ended there, just 21 laps shy of the checkers, he’d still have won and gone to victory lane in his black driver’s suit to celebrate.

Dillon still ended up there, this time wearing a white suit, but it was after a harrowing finish that saw him take the lead just before the white flag and, with the help of teammate Tyler Reddick, shove Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric aside and sweep by as Cindric’s car wobbled in the side draft. From there, Reddick pushed Dillon all the way to the checkers as just 10 cars finished on the lead lap.

And don’t forget: Landon Cassill. Driving the second car for Spire Motorsports this week, Cassill survived the mayhem to finish a respectable fourth. Cassill has always been a very good superspeedway racer, and that skill earned him the top-five finish among a group of underdogs in the top 10. Cassill, along with Noah Gragson, Cody Ware and BJ McLeod, finished ahead of all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars and all four Hendrick Motorsports entries.

Cassill might have had a shot for the win, but his No. 77 didn’t quite have the power to make a run. He was hampered by some combined inexperience from those around him, Cinderella stories not used to racing up front for wins.

See also
The Underdog House: Inside Career-Best Days For Cody Ware, BJ McLeod & Landon Cassill

What… is the buzz about?

When Kurt Busch bowed out of the playoffs and gave up his spot, was he just a driver doing the right thing, or was he trying to help Toyota put another car in the playoffs? That was the question many were asking after Busch announced he would be unable to compete in NASCAR’s postseason, still suffering symptoms from a concussion suffered in a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway.

The nefarious explanation is good fodder for talk, but that’s likely all it was. While only Busch knows for sure, bowing out was the honorable move, and it’s more likely that the veteran driver did it because it was the right thing to do. There was a time when Busch would have been in the car no matter the cost, but he’s older and wiser now.

Busch had more to gain by not abdicating than he did by opening a spot that Martin Truex Jr. may or may not have been able to grab (spoiler, he ended up with the may not). Had Busch decided to string NASCAR along, he’d have finished 16th in points. Instead, he’ll tumble down the driver standings with every race he misses, though his No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota team will race for the owner’s title.

The questions now turn to whether Busch will make it back at all. It would be a shame if he didn’t, but an even bigger shame if he did and another incident ended his career before he could go out on his own terms.

Busch is a fierce competitor, and if he’s healthy enough to strap in, he will. If he isn’t? He’ll hang up his helmet as a champion.

See also
Drivers Voice Safety Concerns About Next Gen Car After Kurt Busch Injury

Where… did the other key players wind up?

Polesitter Kyle Larson’s day didn’t last long. Larson started up front after qualifying was rained out Friday, but never led a single lap. His day lasted jut 14 circuits before an engine failure sent him home early, finishing dead last in 37th.

Just make sure you don’t listen to the rumors about Larson’s early demise.

Daytona 500 winner Cindric was exactly where he didn’t want to be with two laps to go: leading the race. Cindric ran a smart, tight 400-miler, avoiding trouble and leading 13 laps. But the leader is at a disadvantage on superspeedways, and Cindric couldn’t hang on as Dillon made his move.

After a hard bump by the No. 3 Chevrolet, Cindric maintained control of his car and came back to finish a solid third. While the rookie hasn’t made much noise since his Daytona 500 win, Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL are right in his wheelhouse in the playoffs. If he can clear the first round, Cindric could be a threat at either track.

Playoff bubble drivers Ryan Blaney and Truex battled it out to the bitter end for the lone points spot in this year’s postseason. Blaney suffered some damage in a lap 31 incident, and that put him in danger of missing out despite his stellar season. Truex entered the day 25 points behind Blaney, and on the final restart, he put himself in position to make up every one of them after scoring stage points in both opening segments when Blaney failed to score any.

In the end, though, he couldn’t quite close the gap. Damage on his car from a mid-race incident of his own proved too much for Truex to overcome.

See also
Martin Truex Jr.: Missing NASCAR Playoffs 'Tough Pill To Swallow'

Blaney’s team made repairs to the No. 12, and he was able to finish 15th, six laps down. It was just enough. Dillon’s win meant just one driver would make the cut on points, and Truex’s last run fell short as he missed the cut by only three points with his eighth-place effort.

When… was the moment of truth?

Daytona is a big track — so big that moisture can fall in one corner and not another. That’s what happened with just over 20 laps to go on Sunday. The rain started to fall, but before NASCAR could react with a yellow flag, all hell broke loose on the track, with over a dozen of the lead cars involved in a massive pileup.

It wasn’t the first crash of the day, but it was arguably the most avoidable — the spotters knew it was raining, and NASCAR can listen to what they’re saying. Officials should have believed them.

What it led to was a hodgepodge of drivers left among the 10 still on the lead lap as the field waited under the red flag for the rain to let up. Some had little experience running with the leaders, which can be a recipe for disaster under the best of circumstances.

NASCAR absolutely made the right call waiting as long as possible to try and restart the race; there was simply too much at stake to call it like they might in July. But it highlighted something we learned a couple of years ago: a superspeedway race should not be the cutoff race for the playoffs. There’s too much at stake to let chaos and crashes to determine whether a driver is or is not a title contender.

In some years, it might not matter if a driver far back in points is eliminated late in favor of another driver who won’t really contend. But this time, the playoffs were at stake for drivers inside the top five in points. Truex missed in large part to circumstances well beyond his control.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

It may seem like the season started yesterday, but just 10 races remain to be contested, and the playoffs kick off Sunday night at Darlington Raceway with a marquee event in the Southern 500.

One of the most prestigious races on the circuit, it’s the only true crown jewel event in the playoffs. That makes it a tougher row for the contenders to hoe because it’s a race everyone wants to win. Plus, there are plenty of drivers outside the championship race who are still plenty capable of winning.

Darlington is one of, if not the toughest track on the schedule. To win there is to dance with the Lady in Black herself, because it’s about beating the track even more than besting the other drivers.

It’s a race that could shake up an already uncertain playoffs right from the start. In a year that’s seen parity to the point where every single full-time Cup driver has at least one top-10 finish, there’s plenty that’s still unwritten. This postseason script has the potential to become quite a story.

How… come safety sometimes feels like an afterthought?

Even before the Next Gen car ran an official race, there were questions from drivers and teams about the safety of the new car. Crash tests produced results that NASCAR assured everyone were acceptable.

What has not been shouted to the heavens is that this car is far safer than earlier editions, as was touted with the Car of Tomorrow and Gen-6 cars. While it may not be less safe, that it’s not a step forward is concerning.

The car is more fragile than its predecessors, particularly the suspension, and that’s OK if nobody’s getting hurt.

Problem is, at least one driver has: Kurt Busch has been absent since Pocono Raceway and will miss at least a few more weeks after backing into the wall in Pocono Raceway qualifying. It didn’t look like a particularly hard hit, and backing in is generally one of the safer crash options. But Busch was hurt, to the point where his career may be in jeopardy.

There have been rumblings in the garage about drivers feeling more banged up after incidents than in similar crashes previously. Denny Hamlin was the latest driver to say a crash hurt more than in the past.

NASCAR’s efforts in safety innovation are many and should be applauded. Busch is one of only a few drivers who knows what it’s like to hit a concrete wall on a high-speed track as the SAFER barrier now lines almost every surface of every track the Cup Series visits. Head and neck restraints have lessened the severity of cervical spine injuries.

NASCAR hasn’t had an on-track death in a national series in more than 20 years, which speaks volumes about the commitment to safety. But there’s never room for complacency, and every racecar should be safer than the last.

Follow @Writer_Amy

NASCAR RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: DAYTONA

About the author

Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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kb

I don’t know what AMY is talking up NASCAR for. There have been several drivers this year that have noticed impacts far more than in the past. I have to take Denny’s word and the other drivers who have spoken out, sorry Amy. Your RAH RAH’s for NASCAR don’t count.

Carl D.

Great analysis, Amy. To be honest, I don’t buy the “Evil Toyota Cartel” stories, but maybe I’m just naive. I hated to see Truex miss the playoffs, not because he drives a Toyota, but because he’s my 85 y/o mom’s favorite driver. Now she ain’t happy. I told her “Try being a Keselowski fan”.

janice

i was hoping truex would make it in. then him and harvick beat up on these young guys one last time in their careers for the champoinship. win one for the old guys.

so anyone thing dillon makes it past round 1?

Carl D.

Nope but Reddick probably will.

DoninAjax

Why do all the writers show the wrecks? Because that’s what NA$CAR wants. I’ll bet they made all the 11 o’clock news highlights too.

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