One race remains in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season. The Coke Zero Sugar 400 brings the grid full circle to Daytona International Speedway over six months since the sport’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, kicked things off.
That race played out with a Cinderella story, Michael McDowell, winning after leading just the final lap of the race. Could lightning strike twice at a track where pack racing produces unpredictability?
Tensions are high as over a dozen drivers enter Saturday night's race (7 p.m. ET, NBC) knowing a win is their only chance to grab a playoff spot. 15 of 16 postseason bids have already been handed out: Kevin Harvick was the latest to clinch after no new winner emerged at Michigan International Speedway last weekend.
That leaves the math simple for everyone else on the outside looking in. Tyler Reddick has a 27-point lead over Austin Dillon for the final spot. If Reddick holds onto that advantage and no new winner emerges, he’ll make the field. Dillon, known as a pack racing specialist (see: 2018 Daytona 500 victory) has the ability to close that gap.
For everyone else? The formula is simple: just win.
Plenty of drivers sit in that group ready to rise to the occasion. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has a past Daytona victory and has had career-best performances on these giant superspeedways. Matt DiBenedetto led the most laps in the 2019 Daytona 500 before getting caught up in a late-race wreck. Bubba Wallace has a runner-up finish at Daytona in the past and could argue he had one of the fastest cars in February before a tire problem derailed a top-5 run.
Further up the points grid, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin are battling for the regular-season title and the 15-point playoff bonus that comes with it. Larson’s lead is 28 but that’s far from safe at a track where he has yet to crack the top 5 in 14 career starts. Hamlin, with three Daytona 500 victories to his credit, is at his best here, posting a race-high 98 laps led back in February.
For everyone else? They just hope to make it out of Daytona with momentum and their vehicles intact. The aggression needed to make the playoff field and the superglue nature of pack racing make contact a near certainty over the course of 160 laps. When that happens, especially near the front, wrecks are impossible to avoid as what starts as a one-car crash wipes out half the field.
Considering the circumstances, it’ll be interesting to see how many playoff-bound drivers take it easy, running in a draft of their own in the back to play it safe over the first two stages. But at some point, the adrenaline and push to win take over.
That’s when all heck should break loose. Who will come out of this Daytona drama on top?
Coke Zero Sugar 400
Date: Saturday, Aug. 28
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ryan Blaney
Blaney was an unexpected winner at Michigan after charging to the front over a series of final restarts. It’s the first time in this Team Penske driver’s six-year career he’s won more than one Cup race in a season (adding to his Atlanta Motor Speedway win from early March).
Can that translate into playoff momentum? Blaney had been the one bright spot in a bad summer for Penske’s three-car Ford program. His victory was the first for them since Brad Keselowski won Talladega Superspeedway in April; since then, Keselowski’s announced a departure from the program in 2022 while Joey Logano has been mired in a slump.
Who’s at the Back: Ross Chastain
Chastain had shown vast improvement over the course of the summer, settling into a ride at Chip Ganassi Racing he’ll keep in 2022 despite the upcoming merger with Justin Marks’ program. But finishes of 29th and 35th the past two weeks are awkward timing, wiping away forward drive at a time Chastain needs a Daytona win to advance.
Kurt Busch has made it official: he’ll be a part of 23XI Racing in 2022. Former Cup champion Busch will join Bubba Wallace next year, moving over from Chip Ganassi Racing as the organization expands to a two-car team. The number, 45, is meaningful to Jordan and also brings back the late Adam Petty’s car number back into NASCAR Cup competition.
The Next Gen cars will have a new look next season as car numbers will be moved forward. Busch’s reveal video for the No. 45 offered a sneak peek as the numbers will be placed closer to the front tire on the new car.
The racing world is in mourning once again as Robin Miller passed away this week at the age of 71. The legendary motorsports journalist wrote for the Indianapolis Star for 33 years before moving over to SPEED, ESPN, NBC, and Racer, among other outlets. Covering over 50 Indy 500s, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently created the Robin Miller Award, given to “an unheralded individual who has brought unbridled passion and an unrelenting work ethic to enrich the sport.”
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup drivers, down to rookie Anthony Alfredo (30th in points), who could still clinch a playoff spot at Daytona with a victory.
Drivers who have started all 25 regular-season Cup races but have yet to earn a top-10 result entering the regular-season finale: Alfredo, Josh Bilicki and Quin Houff.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to bet against Denny Hamlin when it comes to Daytona. In my opinion, he had the field dead to rights until a late-race pit strategy mistake cost him the lead in this year’s Daytona 500. Hamlin’s track record as of late (five top 5s in the last seven Daytona events) is almost impossible to achieve with the rollercoaster way pack racing often unfolds at the finish. Keep him on the roster.
While Chase Elliott has mastered the Daytona road course, he’s still searching for his first points-paying Cup victory on the oval. Back-to-back runner-up finishes have been promising after failing to record even a top-10 result in his first nine starts at the track. Can Hendrick Motorsports work together and deliver a solid result for Chevrolets on the big superspeedways? Remember, teammate William Byron is the defending race winner here.
Here’s where it gets interesting. I think you can’t count out Austin Dillon, both in making it in the playoffs on points or winning this race. Dillon had a third-place finish in Daytona back in February, won the Daytona 500 back in 2018 and has eight top-10 finishes in 16 career starts. Add in the speed Richard Childress Racing showed with his No. 3 at Michigan and Dillon is bound to be a contender.
Matt DiBenedetto is racing for his Cup future, literally, heading into this weekend at Daytona. Matty D, without a ride for 2022, has come close at several pack races but his 2019 success at Daytona has yet to be replicated. In fact, he hasn’t led a lap here since that event. But the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford will have the speed in the draft and Team Penske, their affiliate, has showed strength at sister track Talladega Superspeedway. They’ve won three of the past four races held there.
Here’s where you can really cash in on daily fantasy at Daytona. I’m going to go with a few surprises at the back of the pack, capable of posting top-10 finishes and strong position differential.
Daniel Suarez starts 26th and has been forgotten about after a month-long disaster of DNFs dropped him right out of the postseason race. But Trackhouse Racing knows this is their last chance to make the playoffs and Suarez has the speed to contend in the No. 99.
Ryan Preece starts 24th and has been mostly forgotten about as of late with JTG Daugherty Racing. But this is the same driver who shot out of the gate this year with back-to-back top 10s, including an impressive sixth place at Daytona back in February. Half of Preece’s eight career top-10 finishes have come on these pack racing tracks.
What Vegas Thinks
Denny Hamlin leads the way at Daytona with +750 odds, according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Larson is next up, sitting at +1000 followed by a trio of drivers at +1200: William Byron, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott.
Think Preece can pull off a giant upset, a la McDowell? He’s sitting at +5000 and is your best bet among the longshots.
What I Think
I’m going to go upset and say Matt DiBenedetto gets it done. But there are honestly 20, 25, maybe even 30 drivers capable of winning this race. That’s what makes Daytona such a wild card.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.