As a sports fan, Austin Dillon knows every athlete lives for that clutch moment. Dillon had his Sunday at Daytona International Speedway while giving NASCAR everything it could have hoped when the superspeedway was made the playoff-deciding race.
Dillon rose to the occasion with a walk-off win, in a must-win situation, to earn a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. But it couldn’t have come in any less dramatic fashion.
It wasn’t enough that Daytona was the last chance race, it was that Sunday ended up being one of the most chaotic races in recent memory. Dillon went from spinning down pit road on lap 125 when a crash broke out off of Turn 4 to missing a lap 138 crash in Turn 1 when it started raining.
He didn’t just miss the crash. Dillon went from about 16th position to the race lead. Then he sat and waited for three hours through a rain delay to see if the race would be called official or if he’d have to win it on the track.
When the race did restart, Dillon shoved Austin Cindric out of the way with three laps to go. It was the winning move to punch his ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2020.
“There’s such a balance of harnessing adrenaline and staying in the moment because your mind plays tricks on you constantly,” said Dillon. “You’re trying to stay focused on what’s at hand and not get too excited because if you get too excited, you’re going to make a mistake. So you’re trying to keep a level playing field in your mind of, stay aggressive, make the right move when it counts.
“I felt really calm over those last couple of laps. Just the position we were in, I felt confident and you don’t always feel that at speedways. There’s certain moments when I feel really good out there, and I’m, like, OK, I feel like I can control the momentum of the pack.
“That pack was a little bit smaller, obviously, but I’ve been in bigger packs and felt the same way. Xfinity racing, 2019, we had that car that was unbelievable, and it felt like I was in control of what was coming out on the track. And so, it’s so hard to not let your adrenaline get too high. You have to harness it, but you use it to your advantage as well.”
Daytona was everything NASCAR officials could have hoped for to end the regular season. Fifteen drivers went into the race with the opportunity to win their way into the postseason. There was drama with the two drivers holding down the final two playoff spots – Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. – experiencing adversity. Blaney survived, while Dillon’s triumph came at the expense of Truex.
Drivers were upset about the rain that caused a 13-car crash. There were 39 lead changes among 19 drivers. Still left in the running for the win were teams like Richard Childress Racing and Team Penske, as well as the underdogs in Spire Motorsports, Beard Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing and Live Fast Motorsports.
And that three-hour rain delay? It provided time to digest everything that had happened through the first 138 laps, hear from drivers in the midst of competition, and heightened the anticipation of whether Dillon’s Houdini-like move was going to be the race’s lasting image or all for naught if the race went the distance.
With Dillon joining his teammate in the playoffs, each organization competing for the championship does so with multiple drivers. Dillon and 10 others will be looking for his first Cup Series championship.
“This is a big win,” he said. “It’s, obviously, awesome, and I’m going to enjoy it and celebrate it and enjoy the fact that we’re going to get to go compete with the top 16 drivers.
“But it’s the next moment, right? You have to look forward to that next one to really see where the company is at because this is a sport. You just level yourself off of everyone constantly. You’re constantly being judged against the guy next to you.
“So, right now it feels really good. We came out on top. But we got 10 more weeks of this.