By AMANDA VINCENT
With much of the field crashing behind him, Ryan Blaney took the yellow and checkered flag on overtime to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400, the final race of the 26-race 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season, Saturday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. The win was Blaney’s third of the year and his second-straight.
“it was wild. We missed that big one, barely,” Blaney said. “I don’t know how we missed it, and then, we got a restart on the front row and it was kind of a drag race. I’m really thankful to (Corey) LaJoie, who gave me a really good push, and we were able to get clear on the restart, so I appreciate the push from him. I was having to hold off the 4 (Kevin Harvick) and the 17 (Chris Buescher) and the 7 (LaJoie), and I didn’t really know which lane to go with down the back, so I kind of picked the middle and I kind of committed to the bottom, and I guess some people got turned, but what a couple of cool weeks, that’s for sure. It was a very eventful race. It’s so cool to be here in victory lane in Daytona. Maybe we’re on a roll right now and we’ve got everything going our way. Hopefully, we keep it up.”
Blaney took his race-winning lead from Chris Buescher on the final restart. Buescher took the checkered flag in the second position was relegated to last after his car failed post-race inspection.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., instead, was second, Ryan Newman third, and Ryan Preece was fourth.
Denny Hamlin bettered Kyle Larson in the race finishing order, winding up 13th to Larson’s 20th, but that wasn’t enough to overcome his point deficit to Larson. As a result, Larson claimed regular-season championship honors and the 15 bonus points that went with them.
“Our team has worked so hard all of the regular season,” Larson said. “I couldn’t do it without Mr. Hendrick and Linda and all of their support. Everybody back at the shop, too. This is a long season and we still have 10 races to go. It’s a long point to get here and it’s just a big hats off to everybody at the shop. HendrickCars.com, Valvoline, Tarlton and Son, everybody who’s been on board to help us out this year.”
Meanwhile, Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon waged an in-race battle to claim the last remaining playoff berth on points. Both endured late-race struggles — Reddick significant crash damage and Dillon a pit-road speeding penalty and a battery issue. Reddick recovered, though, to finish fifth and take the final spot in the 16-driver playoffs.
“It feels incredible to be in the NASCAR playoffs,” Reddick said. “My emotions were shot as soon as we took the green on the last green-white-checkered. I can’t even believe that we finished sixth (before Buescher’s disqualification). It was a lot coming through that last crash at the line and to make the playoffs is a proud accomplish for our Richard Childress Racing team. I’ve gone to Homestead-Miami a couple times to race for a championship, which was a lot of fun and nerve wracking, but it is a rollercoaster to come to Daytona on the bubble. I almost felt helpless there when I ran into the back of someone and had all the issues we did coming to the checkered. Our Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen team never gave up and we made it through all the challenges. We are going to enjoy this moment, but the real work starts now. I can’t wait to get to Darlington next week and start the Round of 16.”
Dillon finished 17th.
William Byron, Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Blaney and Ross Chastain led laps past the lap-100 mark before Ford teams began what was expected to be a cycle of green-flag pit stops with 39 laps remaining. But a caution came about 20 laps later, before the Toyota and Chevrolet camps made their stops.
After the Chevrolet and Toyota teams stopped under yellow, Fords, led by Joey Logano, cycled to the front for the restart with 16 laps remaining.
After only one on-track incident brought a caution in the first 100 laps, the yellow flag waved four more times for crashes over the course of the remaining distance. A yellow flag with about 15 laps remaining led to a red flag for clean up.
Buescher was the race leader following the red flag for a restart with 10 laps to go.
Elliott won the opening 50-lap stage after leading most of the laps after a lap-20 competition caution, the first yellow flag of the race. He took the lead just before the caution. He gave up the lead briefly to Logano with debris on his grille in the final 10 laps of the stage.
Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Larson and Byron officially started the race up front with Larson on the pole, but because of an issue in pre-race inspection, Larson dropped to the back for the initial green flag. Byron, though, maintained his position up front, leading most of the early laps of the race.
Hamlin, Harvick and Dillon also led laps early.
Logano won stage two at lap 100 after taking the lead just before a caution near the halfway point of the race. The caution was the result of spins by Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman after Corey LaJoie checked up in front of them. It was the first caution for an on-track incident.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell combined to lead most of the first half of the second 50-lap stage.
Justin Haley finished sixth, Bowman was seventh, Elliott eighth, B.J. McLeod finished ninth, and Ty Majeski rounded out the top-10.