It all looked solid for Ty Dillon to race his way into the 2021 Daytona 500… until it didn’t.
By virtue of turning the 33rd quickest lap in Daytona 500 qualifying on Wednesday evening (Feb. 10), Dillon had to be the first driver in the finishing order of the four open cars, in the first of two Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona. All the No. 96 team had to do: finish ahead of Ryan Preece, who locked himself into the Great American Race during the qualifying session, as well as Team Penske driver Austin Cindric and Timmy Hill.
Off the bat, Dillon raced his way through the field, up inside the top 10. But when his line backtracked before pit stops, the No. 96 found itself in 11th, behind Hill in ninth and Cindric seventh.
But then a gamechanger-type moment happened on lap 34, as Cindric sped on pit road. Hill and Dillon both pitted a lap later, along with Toyota drivers Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell. But Hill, running for an underfunded MBM Motorsports, had a slow pit stop and lost the draft.
Dillon was sitting pretty inside the top five, running single file around the top.
With no drafting help, Cindric dropped off the lead lap with 14 laps remaining. He did, however, drop in at the tail end of the lead draft, behind Preece, who became the 22-year-old’s best friend.
Fast forward to the white flag, Dillon was sitting fifth, behind only Aric Almirola, Joey Logano, Bell and Hamlin. On the backstretch, Logano made a move, bunching up the field, allowing a hard charging Preece — getting pushed by Cindric — to catch the No. 96, passing Dillon with just over 100 yards left in the race. Because Preece was the highest finishing open car, the driver guaranteed into the Daytona 500 is Cindric, based off qualifying speed.
“In some ways I feel lucky,” Cindric said post race. “The scenario in which it had to play out was very specific. The [No.] 37 got trapped on the top. When the [No.] 96 went down to the middle lane in three and four, I shoved for all I could.
“Obviously Ty drove a really great race. I think he outdrove what he was driving, put himself in a great position. It’s unfortunate because he’s definitely a veteran of the series. I think he deserves to be in the race.”
Taking the checkered flag in sixth, Dillon found himself packing his bags, as he failed to race his way into the 500, though the No. 33 car finished one lap down in 16th.
“It hurts for sure,” Dillon said in a statement post race. “It’s been just unique this offseason for me with the ups and downs. It’s a blessing to get to drive a race car in NASCAR first of all and you get so close to being in the Daytona 500 again. It’s tough.”
“I believe in myself that I can get it done in these races and to finish sixth and not get any reward for it is hard. I’ll get the great reward of spending time with my kids on Sunday and we’ll probably watch the race. It definitely hurts.”
Dillon has had a frustrating offseason, after his former team, Germain Racing, shut down, selling its charger to 23XI Racing. It took all the way until three weeks before Speedweeks for the 28-year-old to find a ride with Gaunt Brothers Racing, just to hope to qualify into the 500. Unfortunately, it’s the second straight year GBR has missed out on a big pay day.
Earlier in the week, GBR announced Dillon would run for the team on the Daytona International Speedway road course next Sunday (Feb. 21). That came just before he finished 18th in the Busch Clash, competing for 23XI.
Fortunately for Dillon, he’ll be able to try again on Saturday, as he’s driving the No. 54 Xfinity Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing.