Setting the stage for NASCAR's regular-season finale at Daytona
This has been a year in sports unlike any other. But Saturday night, NASCAR will hold its regular-season finale, on schedule, at Daytona International Speedway. The Coke Zero Sugar 400, moved this year from its traditional July 4th weekend, will still provide fireworks as the remainder of the sport's 16-driver field will be determined by the parity and unpredictability of a superspeedway draft.
NASCAR should be commended for fighting through a number of obstacles, from the COVID-19 quarantine to unprecedented weather issues, to get to this point. Two Cup drivers, Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson, have tested positive for the virus but neither wound up seriously ill. The sport remains on pace to finish its season without reducing the number of total events on its schedule.
That said, let's set the stage for who's in and who's out of the postseason chase. 13 drivers have already locked down a spot no matter what happens Saturday night at Daytona.
Race winners (10): Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr.
Qualified on points (3): Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch
Clint Bowyer needs just three points on Saturday to become the 14th driver in this field. The scenarios are so far-fetched where he would miss the postseason we won't get into them here. (The likelihood is, he'll clinch by the end of stage one Saturday night.)
That leaves Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Johnson as three drivers fighting for the final two spots on points. DiBenedetto enters nine points ahead of Johnson in 17th and five ahead of Byron. Johnson is four behind Byron for the final spot. Erik Jones has a slight chance to sneak in on points but only if the three drivers above wreck early (he's 50 behind Byron).
It all seems pretty cut and dry, right? A compelling trio of storylines for the final two spots? DiBenedetto's future in the sport may be on the line, as is the Byron-Chad Knaus driver/crew chief relationship and Johnson's bid for a record-breaking eighth Cup championship. That, in itself, would be enough to bring fans to the edge of their seats.
But Daytona is unique in the parity it brings to the sport. Virtually any one of the 40 drivers in the field could win with the right drafting skill and technique. Differences in equipment are minimal and it gives teams a chance to rescue a disastrous season.
Add in NASCAR's playoff rules? Where a win means you can make the postseason as long as you're in the top 30 in points? That equals chaos about to reign at Daytona.
Jones, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman, John Hunter Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece and Daniel Suarez have all had years to forget. Yet if any of them win on Saturday night? They'll be punching a postseason ticket. Just like that.
Their victory would take one spot away from the Matty D-Byron-Johnson playoff battle and leave just one of them in the 16-driver field. It'll lead to a pile of nerves and no one in this position feeling safe during the 160-lap race.
"It's probably gonna be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end," DiBenedetto said this week. "Especially as desperate as a lot of people will be."
As NASCAR Hall of Fame announcer Ken Squier might say, "A sad moment for these people" based on the two-plus hours of stress they'll endure. But for race fans? It'll be must-watched television, from beginning to end, in one of the year's most exciting events.
Coke Zero Sugar 400
Date: Saturday, August 29
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Other title contenders, like Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, continue to pile up the victories heading into this year's Championship 4. Truex, though is on a little streak of his own that keeps him in the midst of title contention. Over the past seven races, he has finished no lower than third, leading 142 laps along the way. There have been no victories during that stretch but he's risen in points just the same, up to fourth heading into the regular-season finale.
Can Truex finally break through with a victory at a track that's long eluded him... Daytona?
Who's at the Back: Erik Jones
On Aug. 6, Joe Gibbs Racing announced Jones would not be back in their No. 20 Toyota next season. They might as well have thrown a potential playoff bid in the toilet along with that long-term contract. Jones is 0-for-5 on top-10 finishes in the five races since, running no better than 11th while watching other bubble drivers like the Johnson/Byron combo pile up the points and pull away.
Think teammates will work together Saturday night at Daytona? Think again. Friday night’s Xfinity Series race was settled when two Kaulig Racing teammates tangled during the final lap of the race. Ross Chastain tapped leader AJ Allmendinger entering turn 3, spinning them out and allowing Justin Haley (a Kaulig driver himself) to sneak by for the win.
Noah Gragson will return to JR Motorsports in 2021. Gragson, who had been rumored for a full-time promotion into the Cup Series, will remain in Xfinity instead. He’ll continue developing with the same No. 9 team where he’s won two races this year.
Former NASCAR Cup Series driver Greg Biffle is moonlighting in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Biffle is returning to the sport at Darlington Raceway next weekend, driving a truck for GMS Racing. The 49-year-old won the last truck race he entered, surging to the front to win last June at Texas Motor Speedway.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Kevin Harvick’s career high for victories in a season (2018). He can match that total if he wins at Daytona Saturday night.
Laps Harvick has failed to complete all season long. His 99.96 percent of laps completed rate (6,491/6,493) has him on pace for a modern era NASCAR record.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Yes, Denny Hamlin has won the last two Daytona 500s. But Fords have been at the forefront of pack racing this year. Ryan Blaney won this summer's thriller at Talladega Superspeedway, an event that might be one of the best pack races we've seen this century. It's the second Cup race in the last three won by the Blue Oval brand, and they might have made it three-for-three without unfortunate last-lap contact in this year's NASCAR Super Bowl (see Newman below).
I don't know if I'd go with Hamlin and Blaney; the law of averages at these events mean the "Big One" is ready to sweep them into a wreck. But how about Brad Keselowski? Keselowski has crashed out in six of the last seven Daytona events. He's due. And Joey Logano? He sat on the pole for this race last summer and has led 57 laps in the last three Daytona events.
The last time we saw Ryan Newman at Daytona, the No. 6 car was upside down in a near-tragic ending to February's Great American Race. It's also the only top-10 finish Newman has recorded during a difficult year. Isn't this race the type of redemption story for him we see in sports all the time? Expect the Roush Fenway Racing driver to run up front.
Aric Almirola charged to the front this summer on the back of nine straight top-10 finishes. His pack racing prowess (two wins at Daytona and Talladega) make him a solid pick in a sea of drivers that might be more popular selections. Two DNFs in the last four Daytona races mean the 2014 Coke Zero 400 winner is due for a bit of good luck here.
Here's where you make your money at Daytona and cash in with daily fantasy formats. I'm going to go with two little-known teams that typically have big results here.
Corey LaJoie has just a single top-10 finish this season and that came in the Daytona 500. He's got back-to-back top 10s with Go FAS Racing and is ride hunting for 2021; a good result here would work wonders for his future.
Another team further down the list is rookie John Hunter Nemechek. Nemechek was 11th in his lone Daytona Cup start but drives for a Front Row Motorsports team with a history of solid performances. Michael McDowell will be the more popular play (three straight top-15 finishes here) which leaves Nemechek ripe for the picking.
What Vegas Thinks
Denny Hamlin leads the way with 13/2 odds to win the race, followed by Kevin Harvick at 10/1. Team Penske's Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano sit at 12/1.
If there's ever a race to pick a longshot, this one is it. Matt DiBenedetto at 28/1 is a pretty good bet.
What I Think
I'm going to go with Matt DiBenedetto silencing the critics and hitting victory lane for the first time at Daytona, clinching a playoff bid. Jimmie Johnson slides into the final spot over William Byron and completes the postseason field.