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Coke Zero Sugar 400 (Daytona) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

Coke Zero Sugar at Daytona International Speedway

Setting the stage for the regular-season finale on Saturday night as drivers go win-or-bust at Daytona for a playoff spot.

For 14 drivers entering the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday night’s race (7 p.m., NBC) is just a mere formality. No matter what happens, their playoff spot and a chance to compete for this year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship is already secure.

For another 15 drivers in the field? All bets are off.

In that group, it’s win-or-bust for almost everyone as we head toward one of the sport’s crown jewel tracks to cap the 26-race regular season. Just two spots remain to complete the 16-driver field after Kurt Busch announced he’ll give up his spot in the playoffs, sidelined indefinitely while recovering from a concussion suffered at Pocono Raceway last month.

Busch’s official departure was welcome news to both Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, Jr. Even if there’s a new first-time winner at Daytona, one of these two drivers are guaranteed to be the 16th and final selection for this year’s postseason field. Right now, Blaney has a 25-point edge on Truex in the standings. If either one makes it to victory lane themselves (or there’s no new playoff-eligible first-time winner) both drivers will wind up qualifying.

For everyone else, winning is the only way they’ll get into the postseason. Let’s take a closer look at the 13 drivers who have to win or bust their way into the playoffs, in order from most to least likely.

Erik Jones: The 2018 Daytona winner was leading at Talladega entering the last lap of the race. Jones has overachieved this season with a smaller team and Richard Petty’s No. 43 has pulled off the impossible before (winning this race in 2014 with Aric Almirola).

Bubba Wallace: The 2022 Daytona 500 runner-up has a knack for doing well in pack races (see: his win at Talladega last fall). Have four straight top-10 finishes before a few stumbles this month left Wallace hot at the right time?

Brad Keselowski: Keselowski has had a miserable existence in his first year as driver/owner of the No. 6 RFK Racing Ford. The lone exception? Daytona, where he led a race-high 67 laps back in February. This team has known for months Saturday night is their final chance and one of the sport’s best pack racers (six career wins at Talladega alone) will come out firing on all cylinders.

Aric Almirola: See above; Almirola has won at Daytona before. Will his sudden decision to unretire (more on that later) give his No. 10 team a boost?

Austin Dillon: Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500 despite only leading the final lap. Teammate Tyler Reddick has won twice this year and Dillon puts additional emphasis on pack races; he’s a quality dark horse pick.

Michael McDowell: McDowell enters Daytona with a ton of confidence after leading laps and finishing sixth at Watkins Glen. The 2021 Daytona 500 winner has more speed in his car this year and has doubled his career best in top-10 finishes (10).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Two months ago, Stenhouse might have been at the top of this list: he posted four straight top-10 finishes for the first time in his NASCAR career. Two pack race victories, both in 2017, keep him in the conversation but he’s now gone 11 straight races without a top-10 finish.

Justin Haley: Haley’s lone Cup win is a rain-delay miracle where all the right circumstances happened at Daytona three years ago. No one denies his pack race expertise (four career NASCAR Xfinity wins) and is running the NXS event Friday night as a warmup.

Chris Buescher: “Christopher” earned a third-place finish in his first race running Cup for Roush, back in the 2020 Daytona 500. His sizzling summer makes him a trendy upset pick. But he hasn’t posted a top 5 since that race at Daytona and is at least two steps behind co-owner Keselowski here.

Ty Dillon: Both of Dillon’s career top-5 finishes have come at pack races. He’s led just 75 laps in 191 career Cup starts but stranger things have happened.

Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland: Two rookies who haven’t won a Cup race and didn’t earn their first top-5 finish until the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last month. That leaves them as longshots but let’s not forget who won at Daytona in February, right? Rookie Austin Cindric.

Cole Custer: Enduring one of the worst long-term slumps in Cup history with top-tier equipment at Stewart-Haas Racing. The 2020 Kentucky Speedway winner hasn’t come close to front-running speed since and has just one career pack race top-10 finish.

The others (including Cinderella Corey LaJoie, ineligible due to his points position) will be simply looking to spoil the party. Can any of them have a breakthrough in a race where desperation reigns supreme?

Strap in. Saturday night is expected to be one wild ride.

Coke Zero Sugar 400

Date: Saturday, Aug. 27
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
TV: NBC
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Starting Lineup

Who's at the Front: Kyle Larson

No one was going to deny Larson at Watkins Glen with a winless streak that stretched all the way back to Auto Club Speedway back in February.

Not even his own Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Larson ruffled feathers within the HMS organization after an aggressive move on the final restart muscled him in front of Elliott’s No. 9. Larson went on to end a 22-race winless streak, redirecting some precious playoff points from the 2020 champion and 2022 number one overall seed.

“Did what I had to do to win,” Larson said after the race. “Again, I’m not necessarily proud of it, especially with a teammate, but I feel like I had to execute that way.”

Who's at the Back: Corey LaJoie

A 27th-place finish at the Glen wasn’t the worst for LaJoie and his underfunded operation. But for a driver who was hoping to be the year’s major upset story, 20 straight races without a top-10 finish ultimately became his undoing. LaJoie sits 31st in the standings, over a full race’s worth of points (71) behind 30th and thus ineligible for the postseason even if the No. 7 team comes out on top at Daytona Saturday night.

News Briefs

In a surprise reversal, Aric Almirola announced he’s no longer retiring from the NASCAR Cup Series. Almirola and Smithfield announced a multi-year deal that has him continuing as the driver of the No. 10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola, 38, claimed a better balance of family and racing life this year helped change his mind.

Daniel Suarez announced Friday he’s signed a contract extension to remain with Trackhouse Racing Team. Suarez, 29, has 10 top-10 finishes in 25 races this season, sitting 12th in the point standings and earned his first career Cup win at Sonoma Raceway in June.

NASCAR Cup Series crew chief Greg Ives announced Friday he’s retiring after the season. Ives, currently the head wrench for Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports, has 10 career wins at the Cup level with Bowman and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. since taking the reins of the No. 88 program in 2015.

NASCAR by the Numbers

5
First-time Cup winners at Daytona since the summer of 2018: Erik Jones, Justin Haley, William Byron, Michael McDowell and Austin Cindric.

9.8
Average finish of Chase Elliott through 25 races, the lowest for any Cup driver this season. (By comparison, Kyle Larson won the title last year with an average finish of 9.1).

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

I’d put the 14 playoff drivers who already clinched a spot in this category (with one exception). Who among them has the best chance to stay in cruise control out front?

I’d say Denny Hamlin has the most motivation among that group. He’s a three-time Daytona 500 winner who’s due for a solid run after two straight finishes outside the top 10 at Daytona. At some point, Lady Luck comes back around, and a win puts Hamlin in position to capture the number two overall seed.

The other driver to watch is last year’s defending winner: Ryan Blaney. Blaney may play it conservatively, knowing he can make the postseason on points so long as he maintains his edge over Martin Truex Jr. But the No. 12 team is one of the best at this track type and Team Penske has already showed its strength here, winning with Austin Cindric in February’s Daytona 500.

Middle Tier

In here, I’d drop all the drivers in win-or-bust mode. Go with Bubba Wallace and Brad Keselowski as your two top contenders. These drivers have the most upside regardless of whether they’ll pull off the win, veteran pack racers who are more likely to keep the car in one piece and finish even if their bid for victory falls short.

Lower Tier

Last but not least, it’s the longshots: eight drivers who have no postseason ambitions whatsoever. Noah Gragson is one to watch, running the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet that’s collected a handful of top-10 finishes at pack races through the years. Gragson was 20th at Talladega with this car and in contention at the Daytona 500 before being involved in an incident.

Finally, there’s David Ragan, a former Daytona winner who’s earned two top-10 finishes in his last five Cup races since cutting back to a limited schedule. Guess where both of those came? Right here at this track. A cheap salary makes him the perfect back-end pick for your roster.

What Vegas Thinks

The vegasinsider.com odds have Chase Elliott as the favorite (+1000) followed by Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace at +1200. A small handful of drivers sit at +1300 as parity at the front of the NASCAR field makes it difficult to pick a winner at this track type.

If you’re looking for a longshot, 2021 Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell is sitting at +4000.

What I Think

I’m going to say Bubba Wallace gets over the top and earns a playoff spot in a dramatic Daytona finish. No matter what, my money’s on one of the 13 drivers in win-or-bust mode to cap off one of the most chaotic regular seasons in recent NASCAR history.

— 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 tbowles81@yahoo.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.