After the regular-season finale at Daytona, NASCAR's 16-driver playoff field is now set ... and it wouldn't be a crucial NASCAR race without a whole lot of controversy. In the end, though, Austin Dillon won at Daytona, punching a last-second ticket into the playoffs and knocking Martin Truex Jr. below the cut line. Ryan Blaney survived a long, harrowing race and ended up being the only non-race winner to reach the 2022 NASCAR playoffs.
Delayed 15 hours by weather, and then red-flagged late in the race by even more bad weather, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was paused with 21 laps remaining. But many drivers felt the race should have been halted even sooner, complaining that a track too slick to drive led to a major wreck that thinned out the field.
“They had about a whole lap to call a caution and tore up a lot of race cars,” Justin Haley said during a red-flag break. “That was pretty unacceptable.”
“We knew the rain was coming,” Daniel Suarez said. “It was raining next door. It’s just a matter of time. Why wait for it? I don’t know. I’m a little biased because I was in the front.”
Team Penske's Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing's Truex came into Daytona needing to hold their positions as the last two drivers in the playoff grid, and the only ones without a victory before Saturday. As long as a driver without a win didn't leap up and capture the checkered flag, they'd both make the playoffs ... but unfortunately for Truex, that's exactly what happened.
A pair of wrecks prior to the final laps scrambled the playoff chances of both Blaney and Truex. Blaney got collected in a wreck on Lap 31, in the closing laps of Stage 1, damaging his steering and plummeting him deep into the field. Truex, who came into the race 25 points behind Blaney, finished second in Stage 2 to trim Blaney's lead to just 10 points. Moments after the start of Stage 3, in Lap 102, Truex found himself collected in another wreck, one that caused severe damage to his right front fender. But with Blaney six laps down, enough drivers were taken out of the race in wrecks that Truex could gain position after position on Blaney, and as of the red flag, Truex was 12 points up on Blaney.
As the final stage wound down, the threat of weather caused some of the most frenetic racing in recent memory at Daytona. With 23 laps remaining, and rain starting to pick up, the entire field lost grip on Lap 138 heading into Turn 2, causing a massive wreck that reshaped the character of the entire race. Dillon was the only driver to make it through the initial carnage.
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Shortly afterward, the rain that caused that wreck built up enough to soak the entire track, forcing NASCAR to red-flag the race. Lightning strikes in the area caused further concern, but after several hours, NASCAR determined that the track was dry enough to continue.
When the race resumed, only 10 cars remained on the lead lap, and Truex's lead over Blaney vanished as Blaney reversed the strategy that Truex had used on him earlier in the race, "passing" multiple cars that had dropped out of the race. Austin Cindric tried to hold off Dillon in the race's closing laps but was unable to do so, and Dillon captured the victory without a last-turn challenge.
This weekend is the third time Daytona has hosted the regular season finale, a role it's held since 2020. Prior to that, Indianapolis Motor Speedway held the finale for two years, and before that, Richmond International Raceway hosted the final race heading into NASCAR's postseason every year from 2004 to 2017.
NASCAR is on the third version of its playoffs. From 2004 to 2009, drivers reached the playoffs on points alone. For four years after that, NASCAR filled out a 12-driver field with a combination of points and wins. Starting with the 2014 season, the playoff field has included 16 drivers, with a win-and-you're-in format and a four-stage "elimination" sequence running through the playoffs.
Coming into the race, the drivers around the cut line got an unexpected break when Kurt Busch, sidelined for several weeks with a concussion, decided to withdraw his request for a playoff waiver. He'll miss at least the start of the playoffs, but more importantly for the larger picture, his departure from the playoffs left a second potential spot open for a driver to get in without a victory.
Fifteen different drivers won races coming into Saturday night, but with Busch's withdrawal, Blaney and Truex found themselves on the high side of the cut line. Another 13 drivers — those inside the top 30 in points — needed to win Daytona to make the leap into the playoffs. That number included Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace and Michael McDowell, all of whom have had success at superspeedways. But most of those drivers, and many more, were involved in wrecks that ended their playoff hopes.
The playoffs begin next weekend with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington, and run through early November with the season finale at Phoenix. After every three races, the four drivers with the lowest point totals will be eliminated from the playoffs, with the final four drivers competing in an all-or-nothing finale.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.