A New Winner, A Playoff Shakeup, and A (Preventable) Big One, Oh My… – Coke Zero Sugar 400

From the first session (or lack thereof) at Daytona International Speedway, it was clear this was going to be a crazy weekend of racing. Mother Nature proved exactly why it’s not a great idea to race in Florida in the middle of hurricane season, and the teams have demolished cars and disappointed crews to show for it. 

There were no practice sessions scheduled for the Cup Series this weekend, although they most likely would not have taken place anyways. Qualifying was set to take place on Friday evening, but it was also rained out. The starting lineup was set via the qualifying metric that was in place for every race last season.

Track position is determined by the following; 15% fastest lap from the previous race, 35% driver’s finishing position from the previous race, 25% owner’s finishing position from the previous race, and 35% Owner’s Points. 

This metric put reigning champion Kyle Larson on the pole with 2022 Regular Season Champion and Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott beside him on the front row. The 22 of Joey Logano, 99 of Daniel Suárez, and 20 of Christopher Bell rounded out the top-five for the regular season finale. 

As race time neared Saturday evening, it was clear the green flag was not going to fly on time. The rain started to fall and the start was pushed back with hopes to still get the full race in that night. Those hopes were dashed when NASCAR officially postponed the race until 10 a.m. Sunday morning. 

While the rain continued through Saturday night and into Sunday morning, the track employees worked hard to get the track dry prior to the scheduled start. At 10 a.m., the field drove down pit road, made a few pace laps, and took the green flag. The push for the final two playoff spots was on between the 12 of Ryan Blaney, 19 of Martin Truex Jr., and any surprise winners who may take advantage of the weather. 

As the inside lane took advantage of a big push at the start, it was the 9 of Chase Elliott who snagged the early lead from teammate Larson. After getting shoved into a three-wide situation, Larson was relegated to 21st. The team then realized that there may be some trouble with the car, so Larson pulled off and headed for the garage.

Also caught up in that three-wide situation was the 2 of reigning Daytona winner Austin Cindric who lost the pack. By lap 30, he was lapped by the field, now led by the 43 of Erik Jones. One lap later, the 11 of Denny Hamlin pushed Jones a bit too hard which bunched up the field and turned the 20 of Christopher Bell into playoff-hopeful Blaney. Jones, Elliott, Hamlin, Bell, and Blaney all received damage as well as the 4 of Kevin Harvick, 45 of Ty Gibbs (in for injured Kurt Busch), and 6 of Brad Keselowski.

Seven cars pitted at the caution while the rest of the field stayed out. The 9 of Elliott led the field to green from the inside with the 22 of Joey Logano on his outside. This time, the outside had the advantage which put Logano in the lead. After a lap, Blaney was able to meet minimum speed and earn the free pass while the 6 of Keselowski did not and was eliminated from the race and the playoffs. Logano held off the field for the remainder of the stage and earned the stage victory as well as one playoff point. 

About half the field pitted at the stage break with the 18 of Kyle Busch receiving a penalty for running over equipment. This time, it was the 7 of Corey LaJoie and 23 of Bubba Wallace at the front with LaJoie taking the lead on the inside. 10 laps into the second stage, the 17 of Chris(topher) Buescher took the top spot before the 43 took it back.

The 24 of William Byron entered the battle for the lead by lap 57, but was unable to hold on when the 11 of Hamlin got to the lead. Knowing they could not finish the stage without a splash of fuel, the Toyota crew of Hamlin, (Ky.) Busch, Wallace, and Truex Jr. headed for the pits on lap 77. Two laps later, the rest of the field followed suit. 

After green flag pit stops, the 8 of Tyler Reddick found himself in the lead for four laps before Elliott took the spot. On lap 88, the 18 of Kyle Busch had completely rebounded from his pit penalty to take the lead. He held off the field for eight laps to earn the stage two victory and a playoff point of his own. 

The 42 of Ty Dillon, 17 of Buescher, and 78 of BJ McLeod stayed out at the break with the 34 of Michael McDowell winning the race off pit road with a fuel only stop. Busch was once again plagued with problems on pit road and was struck with a speeding penalty. With McDowell on the inside and Hamlin on the outside, the final stage had begun.

In a tight battle for second, the 8 of Reddick pushed McDowell too hard, sending him into the wall. He collected Truex Jr., LaJoie, Byron, Buescher, and the 1 of Ross Chastain who all sustained damage. The 45 of Gibbs earned the free pass as the caution came out. Logano and Reddick led the field to green with Reddick taking the lead. 

All was clean until lap 125 when the 14 of Chase Briscoe dumped Logano who collected the 3 of Austin Dillon, 21 of Harrison Burton, 23 of Bubba Wallace, 38 of Todd Gilliland, 41 of Cole Custer, 47 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and 48 of Alex Bowman. At the caution, the 31 of Justin Haley, 43 of Jones, and 78 of McLeod stayed out while everyone else pitted. With storms starting to creep into the area, Haley was clearly hoping for a repeat of 2019

Haley led the field to green and held onto the lead for a full lap before Jones and Logano wrecked behind him. With the threat of storms still lingering and the risk of running out of fuel, Haley welcomed the quick caution. However, the race was restarted once more even though fans, spotters, and drivers alike were experiencing some rain that had started in turn one. 

Again, Haley led the field from the inside with the 10 of Aric Almirola on his inside. Haley held on for another lap before the 99 of Suárez took the lead. By then, the rain had picked up and it was pouring in turn one. Multiple drivers and spotters were calling for a yellow, but it was too little too late. Three cars – including Haley, Hamlin, and Suárez – spun independently on the wet track, collecting 17 cars in The Big One. Then NASCAR decided to throw the red flag for the storm. 

Over three hours later, the drivers got back in their cars and NASCAR attempted a restart. The 42 of Ty Dillon, 78 of BJ McLeod, and 18 of Kyle Busch pitted prior to the restart, putting the 3 of Austin Dillon in the lead. There was some controversy over who was in the lead when the caution flew three hours earlier, but the timing loops showed the leader was Dillon. 

With over half the field out of the race due to the rain induced wreck, Dillon needed to hold off only 15 other cars to claim the victory. It was no easy task, however, as the 2 of Cindric took the lead on the restart. On lap 155, the 41 of Cole Custer suffered a blown tire, but was able to make it to the pits before a caution was flown. 

With the 41 out of the race, the 12 of Blaney was able to pass Truex Jr. in points. While both were still in the playoffs with Cindric (a would-be repeat winner) leading, the 3 of Dillon was pushing for the lead which would have one driver eliminated. On lap 153, Dillon shoved Cindric out of the way and took the lead. With that move, Blaney was in and Truex Jr. was out. 

Dillon held off the remaining field for the final two laps, earning the win and a playoff spot. Ryan Blaney – third in regular season points – claimed the final spot while Martin Truex Jr. – fourth in the regular season – will not advance. Truex Jr. is the highest driver in points to miss the playoffs since the format was introduced.

By not bringing out the caution before the field completely demolished itself in the rain and not allowing the driver fourth in points to compete for the championship, NASCAR has some explaining (and apologizing) to do. But that’s for another time. For now, the playoffs will begin next weekend at Darlington Raceway. Catch the opener on USA Network at 6 p.m. next Sunday.

Featured photo from @NASCARonNBC on Twitter.

Published by Madelyn Hipp

Madelyn is a recent graduate of Purdue University in Aviation Management. Her favorite drivers are Ryan Blaney, Justin Haley, and Christian Eckes. Her other interests include Major League and college baseball, hockey, golf, and air racing. She is the founder, editor, and a writer at Pit Box Press.

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