Austin Dillon poised to win Daytona, make playoffs in red flag; Truex would get last spot

Austin Dillon was poised to snatch the final Cup Series playoff spot by taking the lead out of a major pileup in Turn 2 just as a red flag for rain stopped Sunday’s race at Daytona International Speedway.

Several cars at the front of the field, including race leader Denny Hamlin, all spun on the entry to Turn 2 with 22 laps remaining in the regular-season cutoff race.

Dillon, who was 16th when the crash started, kept his No. 3 Chevrolet low on the track and scooted through the debris field to take the lead on Lap 139 of a scheduled 160. NASCAR then threw the red flag for the downpour at around 12:35 pm ET.

If the results held, Dillon would make the 16-driver playoff grid, and Martin Truex Jr. would claim the final spot by 12 points over Ryan Blaney (who had entered the race with a 25-point lead over Truex).

At the red flag, Kevin Harvick was in second, followed by Landon Cassill, Cody Ware, Austin Cindric, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., BJ McLeod, David Ragan and Noah Gragson.

Multiple crashes just before the stoppage had eliminated several contenders, as drivers raced frantically with the threat of rain shortening a race that had become official on Lap 80. The race had started at 10 am ET after being postponed from Saturday night by persistent rain.

Blaney’s chances were severely impacted by a Lap 31 crash on the backstretch that started when Hamlin lost the handle while pushing Erik Jones in the lead.

Blaney was behind Hamlin and backed out to avoid contact, but Christopher Bell ran into Hamlin and spun up the track into Blaney’s No. 12 Ford, which took a heavy shot with its right front in the outside wall.

Truex barely managed to avoid the wreck and finished fifth when the first stage ended four laps later.

But then disaster struck for Truex shortly after the restart to begin the final stage.

At the front of the lead pack, Tyler Reddick clipped Michael McDowell in the left rear, sending the No. 34 Ford into the outer wall.

Truex was running 11th but was caught in the chain reaction, making contact with Ross Chastain and William Byron. Truex’s No. 19 Toyota suffered left-side damage, and a tire failure blew out its right-front fender. He fell to 28th, the last car on the lead lap after repairs for damage.

“I knew we shouldn’t have been up there, dude,” Truex radioed crew chief James Small.

With the race past halfway and officially, McDowell said threatening weather had increased the intensity of the race.

“We fought so hard to put ourselves in a position to have a shot at making the playoffs,” the Front Row Motorsports driver said. “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 come and finished second, I would have been pretty upset with myself.”

Both wrecks were also costly for the winless cars of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing that were trying to make the playoffs with a win. Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 Ford was eliminated in the first wreck, and teammate Chris Buescher was caught in the second.

Keselowski will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013 (the year after he won his lone Cup Series title).

“Somebody wrecked in front of me,” he said. “I’m not really sure exactly what happened, but there were just a bunch of cars wrecking in front of me. I didn’t have anywhere to go and I couldn’t slow down in time, so I hated it for our team. We had a really fast race car. We were working our way to the front, but we’ll cheer on Chris Buescher now, I guess.

“It’s frustrating, but whenever your season is down to one race you’ve got a lot more going on than just that one race. Our team put a lot of effort into getting this car ready. They brought a great car, so I hurt for them that we didn’t get a chance to show it.”

Stage 1 winner: Joey Logano

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

Drivers who had a bad race: After starting from the pole position, Kyle Larson was unable to lead a lap and retired after only 14 laps with an engine problem in his No. 5 Chevrolet. “I guess it was the timing belt maybe, or something like that,” he said. “I didn’t really have much of an indication. I’m sure they’ll dig through the data and see if it was happening earlier than when it really let go there.” … Rookie Ty Gibbs was caught in the early accident and lost several laps because of the damage.

Next: The Cup Series playoffs will open Sunday, Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway with the prestigious Southern 500 (USA, 6 pm ET).

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Austin Dillon poised to win Daytona, make playoffs in red flag; Truex would get the last spot originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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