Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale had everything to do with momentum, from the wild in-race swings on the postseason standings picture to the moves made in the draft at Daytona International Speedway. The deciding shift stemmed from the late-race momentum generated by Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet in a fateful bump of Austin Cindric’s No. 2 Ford.
That changing of the guard for the lead in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 made the difference in the battle for the final berths in the Cup Series Playoffs grid, and Dillon’s first victory of the season cleared his way into the championship-eligible grid. Cindric’s defeat narrowed the playoff gap, leaving room for only one remaining qualifier — a spot that Ryan Blaney grabbed late, edging out Martin Truex Jr.
The implications from that final nudge with three laps remaining were wide-ranging. Here’s what the principals involved had to say about the pivotal moment:
Austin Dillon, No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet driver: “Laps are clicking down, and I knew I could get to the 2’s back bumper pretty good. The 62 (Noah Gragson) and the 8 (teammate Tyler Reddick) did a good job of getting up through there, so I felt like three Chevys in a row was an advantage. In the back of my mind, I knew that the 12 car (Ryan Blaney) was still out there, and before I didn’t know where he was points-wise. If I waited until the white flag to make the move, possibly if he wrecks or someone wrecks back there, it could take our shot away.
“I wanted to make it before the white (flag). Truthfully, that was — it just kind of happened. I was kind of planning on getting a bigger run than that before and pulling out to the right. And I figured that the 2 was going to be a sitting duck because they were going to go with me, the Chevys would, and then we would race it out from there.
“He kind of got loose as I got to his back bumper into one, and I kind of have been giving him that same shove. I don’t know if I just caught more momentum that lap than the others, but when he got free, I just kind of moved up the track. Then I got way out front. It’s very hard to tell yourself to hit the brake pedal when you are driving away from the guys that are behind you to not give up that huge gap.
“When I saw Tyler got there and they were all splitting up, I was, like, ‘Man, I can’t let them go too big of a run.’ I knew Tyler would have my back. He has been a good teammate to me, and I enjoyed working with him. Hit the brake pedal. He got on my back bumper and from then on it was managing the gap to him in my mirror. We were able to bring it home.”
Austin Cindric, Team Penske No. 2 Ford driver: “I think it’s fair game any race of the season, but obviously that meant a lot for him to win that race. He had three cars that were certainly going to be able to work with him, and I was lifting way before the flagstand, trying not to get that gap. I kept trying to get the runs, trying to get the runs, and I feel like they got the run too late and then he hit me straight on the entry to the corner. Just glad I saved it, glad I had a shot to come back up through the field but yeah, I hate losing.”
Richard Childress, team owner of Richard Childress Racing: “He kept running up behind him. I think he was trying to get him loose. I didn’t see that move. I don’t know if he got so close, he got him loose, or if he bumped him a little to push him and got him sideways. When you are racing for the win, that’s what all of them is going to be doing.”
Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s NASCAR Competition Director: “Those guys pretty much knew where things were. I mean, it was pretty obvious what the situation was. He was in such a tough spot. I mean, he was a sitting duck with the whole RCR chain behind them. It was like, ‘Man, I hope we just don’t end up wrecked right here,’ which, fortunately, we just got moved and he was able to kind of come back and get a pretty good finish out of it.”