The great equalizer.
That’s what superspeedway racing is when the NASCAR Cup Series visits Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Though on Sunday, the action and intensity brought a different level of stunning results.
Austin Dillon’s Game 7 Moment
After surviving a chaotic wreck-filled Coke Zero Sugar 400, Austin Dillon pounced on the opportunity, and surged tothe playoffs for the first time since 2020.
Austin Dillon celebrates after securing a spot in the playoffs. (HHP/Harold Hinson)
“I’ve got four wins in the Cup Series. Each one of them mean something different to me for different reasons,” Dillon said. “But the Texas one where I had multiple restarts and had to win and cross the checkered flag was probably one, from the driver’s standpoint, one of the most important wins to me.
“Then now this one, too. To go through all that and to be able to be, clutch in a moment that mattered is important. To us in all sports, right? To deliver when you have the opportunity to deliver.”
Delivering when it mattered the most, sent the driver of the famous No. 3 to victory lane, 32 years after the late Dale Earnhardt scored the summer victory at Daytona in 1990 with the Richard Childress Racing operation.
The unique spin on that day?
It was the last summer Cup Series race to start at 10 a.m., until Sunday’s rain-delayed race at the 2.5-mile track.
A Day For The Underdogs
Sunday’s race at Daytona brought monumental finishes for some of the smaller teams in the garage.
Prior to Daytona, Rick Ware Racing had tallied four top-10 finishes in the team’s history.
RWR left Daytona with two more top-10 finishes, with a sixth-place run from Cody Ware and a ninth-place result from David Ragan.
It was the second top-10 of the season for Ragan, who is running only the superspeedway races. He finished eighth in the Daytona 500.
Driving for Spire Motorsports, Landon Cassill brought the No. 77 Chevrolet home fourth — eight years after his first Cup Series top-10 effort at Talladega in 2014.
With a seventh-place result, B.J. McLeod topped his best career finish (ninth at Daytona last year), driving the No. 78 Ford past the checkered flag in one piece.
It was a career first for Noah Gragson, who scored his first Cup Series top-five finish of fifth, driving for Beard Motorsports.
Gragson, who is an Xfinity Series winner at Daytona, will compete for rookie of the year in the Cup Series next year with Petty GMS Racing in the No. 42.
Since his Daytona 500 victory to open the season, rookie Austin Cindric has been pulled through the wringer as he’s adjusted to the nuances of Cup Series racing.
The Team Penske driver has maintained a steady demeanor and nabbed eight top-10 finishes, including a summer stretch of four in a row in July.
However, with the playoffs looming, Cindric needed a spark.
At Daytona, Cindric lost the lead draft in the early going, after getting stuck behind the ill-running No. 5 Chevrolet of Kyle Larson.
Despite falling a lap down, Cindric got his lap back after the Stage 1 break.
Austin Cindric (2), gets a push from Dillon during the closing laps at Daytona. (HHP/Jim Fluharty)
The driver of the No. 2 avoided the chaos later in the event and found himself in position to win inside two laps to go.
Though Dillon bumped the No. 2 out of the way, Cindric finished third.
“I knew I was a sitting duck,” Cindric said. “I felt like I was Xfinity racing again. I was the only Ford out there. (David) Ragan saved me and I was able to work with both the RWR cars there to get back up through. One lap longer, might have had a shot. I don’t know.
“Frustrating just to be that close. You know that it’s just going to come down to when are they going to take the run.
“I was lifting all the way into the tri-oval and trying not to get that gap that big. They were just backing up to each other working together as they should.
“Kind of pissed about it, but can’t be too upset. In the playoffs and have a lot to fight for. Great opportunity.”
A two-time Cup Series winner this season, Tyler Reddick found him defending his teammate Dillon’s back bumper as the pair held off the field Sunday afternoon, putting both Richard Childress Racing entries in the playoff field.
“I was just trying to get to Austin Dillon,” Reddick said. “I knew he was going to need some allies there at the end of the race to go make the move on the No. 2 (Cindric). As it just kind of turned out, he didn’t really use his teammates for that move, but after everything kind of happened with the second pack catching us, I was really glad to be on his rear bumper to pretty much keep anyone from really creating that energy to pass the lead car.
“A lot of energy comes from that second car and when you have a teammate in that position to be that car absorbing those runs, you can really kind of control what is happening in front of you,” Reddick added. “I didn’t have a lot of experience drafting with this Next Gen car at either Daytona or Talladega and in the Playoffs that can be really important. We now have a better understanding of that so that was a good accomplishment today. I’m really happy for my teammate and excited that we get to head into the playoffs together.”
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin this weekend at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, for the Round of 12.
In addition to Cindric and Dillon, the field includes Larson, Reddick, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman make up the 16-driver field.