DAYTONA BEACH, Florida. – A three-day weekend of NASCAR racing at Daytona International Speedway wrapped up Sunday afternoon, with two surprise winners. Austin Dillon and Jeremy Clements scored big wins at the Wawa 250 and Coke Zero Sugar 400 respectively.
Track president Frank Kelleher was in high spirits as he walked the grounds over race weekend, as there were so many stories beyond the race. 102-year-old ticket clerk Juanita ‘Lightning’ Epton was honored as the office’s namesake, the track debuted its new LED scoring pylons and the track secured a packed crowd for the Cup Series race despite a gloomy weather forecast.
Xfinity Series–Wawa 250
Friday night was for the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s second-biggest racing series. The Wawa 250 was delayed for hours due to local rain and started well after 10:00 p.m. The race was marred by multiple collisions that eliminated potential race-win contenders like John Hunter Nemechek, Sheldon Creed and Joe Graf Jr. The race took three overtime attempts to finally settle; despite several strong restarts from Austin Hill, it was Clements who came out on top in the end.
A trial by NASCAR officials gave Clements the win, as driver Riley Herbst spun on the infield grass as the field neared the final lap. If the leaders take the white flag before the caution flag goes out, the race is instantly over, as opposed to an additional restart if they don’t. Clements led the field to the start-finish line moments before the caution flag was displayed, finishing with him as the lead.
It was Clements’ second career win, following one five years earlier at Road America in Wisconsin. It was the first time his wife Courtney had seen him win in person and the emotions were overwhelming. “I’m having a panic attack in the best way,” she said moments after her husband’s triumph. “I am so proud of him! He is so talented and the world can see it!”
Cup Series – Coca-Cola Zero Sugar 400
The Coke Zero 400 was scheduled to kick off on Saturday night after 7:00 pm, but Mother Nature had other plans. An afternoon of heavy rain caused the race to be postponed until Sunday morning. Of course, for midsummer in Florida, it’s far from the first time such a postponement has occurred.
Once things got going at 10:00 am on Sunday, things got dangerous almost immediately. It was the final opportunity for more than a dozen drivers to win a race and qualify for the NASCAR playoffs for a shot at the championship. Reigning series champion Kyle Larson retired early with engine failure, and a multi-car accident early on ruined the chances for Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Brad Keselowski. For Blaney it was a particularly harsh blow, as he was in a close points battle with Martin Truex Jr. to secure a final playoff berth.
An injured Blaney car returned to the track after receiving repairs, several laps off the pace and slower than the rest. Truex had already reigned in Blaney’s points cushion, sitting modestly ahead as the race wore on.
However, in the early afternoon, the rain returned and caused things to come to a standstill for a few more hours. Cars were covered and drivers went for cover. The rain began to fall while the cars were still racing, resulting in a massive crash that put almost half the field out of contention. Some, like Denny Hamlin, Justin Haley and Daniel Suarez, have asked NASCAR for a quicker hook when it rains in the area.
The first car to break through the rubble and remain intact was Austin Dillon’s, the 2018 Daytona 500 winner. Dillon led a motley crew of top ten, ahead of underdogs like Cody Ware, Landon Cassill and BJ McLeod. . Daytona was a do-or-die race for Dillon, who would otherwise miss out on the NASCAR playoffs entirely.
Despite conventional wisdom, Dillon and the field remained optimistic that the race would restart once the rain cleared. It took several hours, but the work of the air titans and track dryers got the track back into running condition and led to the race restarting shortly after 4:00 p.m.
Dillon restarted as the lead and quickly got to work fending off attacks from Ware and Austin Cindric. After a few laps, Cindric cruised past Dillon to take over the race. However, desperation proved to be a factor, as Dillon pushed Cindric out of the way to retake the lead. Cindric was already locked into the playoffs thanks to his win at the Daytona 500 in February. For Dillon, it was the difference between contention and elimination.
In the closing laps, no combination of cars could work together to put on a race that could overtake Dillon, and the legendary #3 Chevrolet found itself back on Daytona’s Victory Lane. It was a 1-2 sweep for Richard Childress Racing, with Dillon’s teammate Tyler Reddick in second.
The number of race cars wrecked in the field probably ran into the millions of dollars in damage. It mainly affected teams that have the budget to replace their ruined cars, but that doesn’t mean bitter feelings aren’t still in play. “The #43 [of Erik Jones] I was a squirrel all day,” said 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano shortly after taking damage late in the race. Jones, like Dillon, had to win the race if he wanted to continue his championship hopes.
Despite his earlier heavy damage, Blaney beat Truex for the final playoff spot by just three points. The masses of cars colliding in the rain delay were enough for Blaney to make up positions and retake his points lead over Truex. With two spots open at the start of the day, Dillon claimed one by winning and Blaney took the other by beating Truex.
It was the fourth career win for Dillon, but Sunday was also a big day for several underdogs who had never found Victory Lane before. “There are a lot more lows than highs in NASCAR, but to be here and get my first top 10 is really phenomenal.” said Ware, who finished sixth. Financial and resource disadvantages keep Ware at the front of the pack most weeks.
“It was an amazing day for a small team,” owner-driver McLeod said. “I am always grateful and motivated, but it is difficult. This series is tough, man.” Like Ware, McLeod secured the best race finish of his career by placing seventh.
Perhaps the biggest winners of the day were a handful of sports bettors who relied on the surprising performances of NASCAR’s underdogs. A FanDuels user bet $13.49 that Ware, McLeod, Cassill and David Ragan would get the top ten. That person got a payment of $999,463.
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs continue next week at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. The 15 winners of the 2022 race and wild card Blaney will compete to advance to the round of 16, the next step in putting together a championship season.