2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon made a bold move on the last lap that secured him his first Daytona qualifying race after the start of the event was postponed due to weather.
Dillon, with a push from Kevin Harvick, Dillon drove from the top to the bottom of the track coming to the checkered flag to pass Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. in the final seconds of the race.
“All the guys and girls back at RCR really put their heads together, ” said Justin Alexander, Dillon’s crew chief. “We built a great car, came out here. It’s good to just go out and execute this first race, just show we do belong up there and we do have the car to win the 500 this coming weekend.”
Dillon managed to steal the win after leading only one other lap during the race, which saw 14 lead changes between six drivers in 60 laps.
Throughout the chaos of the race, four drivers without charters battled for their chance to compete in the Daytona 500: David Ragan, Garrett Smithley, Kaz Grala and Noah Gragson.
Smithley, Grala and Gragson were all involved in a wreck with four laps remaining, which allowed Ragan to be the first non-chartered team to finish the race, but because Ragan had already locked into the Daytona 500 based on his speed in Wednesday’s single-car qualifying session, the the final transfer spot went to Grala, who was the next fastest non-chartered car who didn’t have a starting spot in Sunday’s race already.
“I tried to keep my emotions as checked as possible,” Grala said. “I like to think of myself as a pretty calm driver. I’ll tell you, that was the most stressed I’ve ever been in a race.”
Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be Grala’s first.
After a start delayed by rain, William Byron led the 22-car field to the green flag, but Bubba Wallace took the front spot in turn 3. Byron took the lead back a lap later on the inside and led a string of 10 cars in front of a three-wide pack. The middle lane dissipated, but the outside lane continued to struggle as drivers shuffled in and out of the line. When Ryan Blaney brought his Penske Ford to the outside, however, he was able to lead the line back to the front. Kevin Harvick jumped in front of Blaney just in time to get pushed to the lead.
Once he was back toward the front, Bubba jumped to the inside and pulled beside Harvick to challenge for the lead and he cleared Harvick, but an indecisive block attempt put Bubba in the middle lane with no help, resulting in him getting shuffled to the rear of the field.
Byron reclaimed the lead with help from Austin Dillon and the two drivers began to lead the outside line, which picked up momentum as the whole field ran single file. The single-file racing didn’t last long, though. Elliott and Bubba moved to the abandoned inside line, and more cars followed as the line marched to the front.
The lead was traded between Byron, Harvick and Dillon but behind them, chaos ensued. With 25 laps remaining, rookie Chase Briscoe lost control of his Ford Mustang and spun off of turn 2, collecting Anthony Alfredo and Kaz Grala. The wreck brought out the first caution of the race.
Under the caution, every driver made their pit stop, but strategies were wide open. Some drivers, like Elliott, sacrificed track position for four fresh Goodyear tires. Another handful of drivers opted for just two tires, while the gutsy duo of Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney elected to take fuel only.
Blaney led the pack back to the green flag with just 20 laps to go, but William Byron took his no. 24 Chevrolet, equipped with two fresh tires, back to the lead. Elliott, Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, used his four fresh tires to charge into fourth place, but all of the drivers continued to jostle for position.
With 10 laps to go, Martin Truex, Jr. took his shot against Byron for the lead and cleared the no. 24 car. Garrett Smithley, one of the non-chartered cars, attempted to pass Noah Gragson’s no. 62, but a block-gone-wrong by Keselowski caused a wreck which involved Byron, Smithley, Gragson and Ross Chastain, bringing out the second caution of the race.
With a push from Bubba and Kyle Busch, Truex led the field to the green flag for the overtime run to the finish. The Toyota trio took control of the race. Bubba and Truex got side-by-side in front, slowing their momentum and allowing Kevin Harvick to push Austin Dillon to the front through turns 3 and 4. At the line, Dillon was barely a car length in front of Bubba, but it was enough to win the second duel.
Featured photo credit: Chris O’Meara/AP Photo