NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

What happened?

William Byron won a wild Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night (Aug. 29) for his first Cup Series win.

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace rounded out the top five, while Byron, Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto secured the final three available playoff spots.

How did it happen?

The night began with a lot of sparks flying. It was clear from the get-go that teammates would be working together, as the Chevy group, Ford group and Toyota group all organized. After a few laps of typical three-wide racing, the field went single-file until the competition caution at lap 20.

The rest of the first stage had no cautions, but it did have some great racing. The final few laps were thrilling as Byron, DiBenedetto and Jimmie Johnson battled for stage points. In the end, Joey Logano led the final 15 laps of the first stage to secure the playoff point. Johnson ended up fifth, with Byron seventh and DiBenedetto outside the top 10.

After pitting between stages, a contingent of Fords pit again just before the green flag to top off on fuel. As a result, the Chevys (and Erik Jones) dominated the early parts of stage two. When the bowties pit for fuel, most Toyotas quickly followed one lap later.

Organizing on the opposite side of the track, the Chevys and Toyotas lined up to run down the Fords at the front of the field. Still, Logano won another stage, bringing his total to six on the year. Johnson finished fifth again, with DiBenedetto seventh and Byron outside the top 10. At this point, Johnson controlled his own destiny to make the playoffs.

As usual, the third stage meant chaos at Daytona. There was a caution for James Davison with 17 to go, and Byron pit from third with his teammates Elliott and Johnson following.

Soon after the restart, the first big one hit. Kyle Busch held the lead, but Tyler Reddick had a huge run. He ducked out of line and tried to clear Busch, he just ran it a little too hard. Both drivers got into the wall and it triggered a massive pileup. Somehow, all three bubble drivers snuck by in a row on the inside. The race went to a red flag with eight to go.

On the ensuing restart, Hamlin and Logano traded off big runs for the lead. Then, it was Wallace and Bryon with huge runs. Byron made it four-wide, and there just wasn’t enough room. Logano got into Wallace and Johnson eventually got collected.

That wreck brought us to the final restart of the night – an overtime restart. There were multiple crashes in the back of the field, and Truex seriously threatened, but Byron stayed out front with his teammate pushing him to his first career victory.

Who stood out?

Byron finally showed he was capable of winning in the Cup Series. He wasn’t necessarily on the hot seat, though I’m sure many fans were starting to wonder how long his leash was in that famed No. 24.

It took Byron 98 races to win, which seems to be the average length for young Chevy drivers. Elliott and Kyle Larson both won in their 99th starts, so Byron is technically ahead of schedule. He hasn’t had the consistency Elliott and Larson had prior to winning, but maybe this could be the start of something bigger.

As far as the history, Byron is now just the second driver to win in the No. 24. The other, as I believe you know, is Jeff Gordon. Elliott ran 72 winless races with that number. Now, all three young Hendrick drivers are winners as their veteran mentor nears retirement.

He didn’t have the smoothest night, but DiBenedetto – like Byron – rallied and proved that he is worthy of his famous ride. A few weeks ago, Matty D seemed like a lock to make the playoffs. Three straight finishes of 15th or worse put him right on the bubble, and after earning just four stage points, his odds were dwindling.

He survived the first wreck, then lucked out after Johnson got collected in the next crash. He fell to 12th on the overtime restart, but that was all he needed.

For a guy that bounced around for various backmarker teams, this is a huge deal for DiBenedetto. Austin Cindric is breathing down his neck for a Cup ride, and making the playoffs is a bit of insurance.

Logano and the Penske trio are the best in the sport on superspeedways. Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney all had their share of bad luck tonight. All night, though, these three were near the front of the field, and they work together better than any team.

Logano was able to win both stages, giving him the fourth-most playoff points entering the final 10 races. He also led a race-high 36 laps. With a key race at Talladega in the Round of 12, the Penske group has to be encouraged with its superspeedway program.

Who fell flat?

The wreck wasn’t his fault, but Saturday was a microcosm of Johnson’s final three seasons. It was looking so good after grabbing 12 stage points. He was four points ahead of Byron and one behind DiBenedetto entering the final stage. Then, all hell broke loose.

It’s tough to dwell on the results at a superspeedway, so Johnson has to be kicking himself about what happened before. He finished second at the Coca-Cola 600 and was disqualified, costing him a number of points. Then, he missed the Brickyard 400 after testing positive for COVID-19. After all that, he only missed the playoffs by six points.

That’s going to sting for Johnson. It’s not like he was a serious championship threat, but the fact that he won’t have that final shining moment after a legendary career is so unfortunate. Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville to make the Championship 4. Tony Stewart won at Sonoma to make the playoffs. The likely hood of Johnson getting that moment by winning over drivers in the playoffs? Slim.

Regardless, Johnson (unsurprisingly) remained a class act through it all.

For a moment, it looked like Reddick was going to crash the playoff party. That quickly ended when he made a few too aggressive moves late in the race. First, it was the huge run by Kyle Busch that ended with him kissing the wall and triggering a big one. Then, he got caught in the next big one to end his night.

He’s had a fun rookie season, and his future in the sport is definitely bright. Reddick has the type of talent to make things happen regardless of his equipment. The moves he made at Daytona ruffled some feathers with veterans like Ryan Newman, but Reddick is the kind of driver you want to root for. He just has the guts to make whatever move it takes to win – or wreck trying.

We’re running out of ways to describe how unlucky Kyle Busch’s season has been. He led 31 laps at Daytona and was absolutely one of the best cars, it just didn’t happen. He got collected in Reddick’s mess, and he gave another standard 2020 interview.

He enters the playoffs 14th of the 16 drivers with just three playoff points. But could this be a playoff run like Stewart in 2011? That season, Smoke went winless and claimed his team “didn’t deserve to be in (the playoffs).” Busch has given similar quotes and is also winless, but the team clearly has speed. No one would be surprised if he got hot and made a run.

What did this race prove?

Regular season cutoff races are always exciting – Daytona just brought the cutoff excitement to a new level. Anyone could’ve won this race, and while that may not be a fair way to make the playoffs in the mind of some, it was as entertaining a race as we’ve seen all season.

As much as we’ll miss the traditional Daytona at the Fourth of July, this could be the start of a great new tradition. Lots of people don’t like change, but this is a change that NASCAR hit out of the park.

And for the playoffs, we get even more great cutoff races. The Bristol night race, the Charlotte ROVAL and Martinsville will wrap up the three playoff rounds. I can’t wait.

I may be overthinking it. To me, though, this race felt like an enormous moment in NASCAR history. Think about it. Johnson, the legendary seven-time champion, wrecks out and misses the playoffs in his final full-time season. To knock him out, Byron – who grew up a Johnson fan – wins his first career race in the No. 24 car with Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus.

If Byron goes on to have the career many expected after he dominated the Xfinity and Truck Series, this will be the race we look back on as the beginning. Nothing will match Richard Petty’s last race being Gordon’s first race and the epic battle for that 1992 title, but this race could have great historical meaning.

Looking at the pit box, Saturday’s win perhaps meant more to Knaus than anyone else. Knaus has made all 17 editions of NASCAR’s playoffs, and he was in danger of missing his first after the first two stages. Instead, he makes the huge call to pit Byron from third late in the race and it pays off.

Saturday was the 82nd win of his career, but his first without Johnson. Like Johnson, he hadn’t won since 2017 and it was fair to start questioning if he and Byron were a good fit. For one night at least, they put those questions to bed.

Paint scheme of the weekend

Michael McDowell has secured a number of new sponsors for the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford this season (Digital Ally, Chicago Pneumatic Compressors, etc.). Some schemes have been better than others, and Saturday’s newest design was perhaps his best yet.

This is the third CarParts.com scheme McDowell has run this season, and is clearly the best of the bunch. The predominantly blue color with orange numbers is a beautiful contrast. McDowell didn’t get the upset win he wanted, but this scheme was certainly a winner.

Better than last year?

Last year’s July race at Daytona was rain-shortened with Justin Haley winning after seemingly endless lightning delays. The race ended with 33 laps to go, and the threat of rain made for some great racing before the weather finally hit.

But come on, Saturday’s race was an instant classic. Between the ongoing points battle, the differing pit strategies and the big wrecks at the end, this race had it all. Top it all off with another first-time winner – this time under non-weather related conditions – and you have a race better than last year.

Playoff picture

After four races, a three-month break for a global pandemic and 22 more races, the 2020 NASCAR playoff field is officially set.

As mentioned above, Byron, Bowyer and DiBenedetto will complete the 16-driver playoff field, with Johnson, Erik Jones and Reddick just missing the cut.

Kevin Harvick, Hamlin and Keselowski lead the field in playoff points and will begin the postseason at the top of the standings.

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads back to where the post-pandemic schedule all started. This time, it’s the traditional throwback Labor Day Weekend at Darlington Raceway. The Cookout Southern 500 is set for Sunday at 6 p.m., as the playoffs will begin with the Round of 16. This will be the first playoff race Darlington has hosted since the inaugural “Chase for the Cup” in 2004.

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About Logan Reardon

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14 comments

  1. Avatar

    All in all I think the race was entertaining as well. Best race we’ve seen at Daytona in a long time. If Reddick had just stayed low in front of Hamlin who knows what might have happened.

  2. Avatar

    It was a good night for racing…. no threat of rain, and four playoff positions still to be decided in a final regular season race at thrilling Daytona Speedway. The race didn’t disappoint, though the results were certainly disappointing Jimmie Johnson fans. They will just have to be happy with his legacy, and the fact that he ran this race like a tiger just let out of his cage.

    I have always liked Jeff Burton, even as an announcer, but I admit that sometimes he can be annoying. Last night was one of those nights. Part of that is because of the nature of the final regular season race, part of that is just super-speedway racing excitement. The rest is on Burton. Turn it down a notch, Jeff.

    There were a lot of variant paint schemes and I sometimes wondered who my tired old eyes were looking at. The pylon scoring TV graphic is sometimes hard for me to read from the sofa. Just an observation.

    Great race. Though I don’t care for the chase, it should be a good one this season. Harvick and Hamlin are on a roll, and their battle for the trophy could be one for the ages. Or any one of about a half-dozen other contenders could steal the show. At the very least it should be an interesting finish to a bizarre season.

  3. Avatar

    william byron will never ever win in the cup series again. Hendrick motorsports is washed up with no future in sight. MR H has made a series of costly missteps regarding driver choice for a long time now. its time to pay the piper. IT feels like hes getting ready to make another costly error for driver of the 48. The downward spiral will continue until they hire a proven top 8 veteran who has a resume like no other.

    • Avatar

      That’s funny. Neither Gordon nor Johnson had any kind of resume when they were signed. That seemed to work out well. Seems he has been hiring young drivers without much of a resume for the last 25 years. Granted not all of them worked out and it is hit or miss but the bigger the risk the bigger the payoff if it goes well. I am not disagreeing with your overall point, I’m just pointing out that HMS has won more championships in that period that any other organization without hiring “a proven top 8 veteran who has a resume like no other”. Why should he start now?

  4. Avatar

    I am not sure how I feel about having a crapshoot race decide who gets in the crapshoot playoffs but I have to admit there was some ramped up fake drama. (Fake because all those bubble guys will most likely be out before the round of 8 so why bother getting excited about which unchampionship worthy driver arbitrarily makes it). Regardless, having that as the last race did force drivers to let it all hang out. Those already in could afford to go for it. Those not in it couldn’t afford to not go for it. I was surprised that there weren’t more wrecks earlier.

    While I am glad Johnson didn’t make it (if for no other reason we won’t have to hear the guys in the booth dote on him as much), the truth is, he probably deserved it more based on how he ran this season than about 6 guys that made it.

    I am ALWAYS happy to see a first time winner so congrats to Myron. However, I wouldn’t read into it too much as for what it means for his future because, after all, it was a crapshoot restrictor plate race. He won by being lucky to avoid the wrecks, being at the right place at the right time, and having circumstances line up for him. It wasn’t because he had the best car or was the best driver. I’d have been even happier if DiBenedetto had gotten his first win.

    Now the playoffs start… yay?

  5. Avatar

    so I wonder if there will be a 4th 7 time champion I years down the road? better yet, will nascar another 10-15 years seems like that 8th championship remains elusive.

    long shot odds of matty d being champion, but hey it’s 2020. it’s been one strange year.

    • Avatar

      keep in mind, if Rick Flair has 16 heavyweight titles, what’s to stop a NASCAR driver from exceeding 7 with their championship format..

      • Avatar

        The wrestling actors get their titles because Vince says so. Brian learned a lot from him.

        • Avatar

          My point exactly

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          I know. I see seven chase chumpionships for Chase if Brian can get back with his brilliant ideas. J-Jo has seven chase titles, not points titles. Big difference.

        • Avatar

          I consider what DoninAjax calls “Chase championships” more legitimate than “Points championship” won by guys who won on points, including the phony 5 bonus points for leading a single lap. Just look at the champions we have had since the current Playoff system has been in effect: Harvick, Kyle Busch (2), Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex, Jr. and Joey Logano.

          Fans like you keep hoping some outlier will win it, but it hasn’t happened and it won’t happen this year.

        • Avatar

          That last sentence makes absolutely no sense Jo.
          No one that likes the traditional year long points format wants an outlier to win. They want the driver that kicked ass all year to be crowned champion. An outlier can only win with the chase/playoff format. In the traditional whole season points format an outlier would be out of contention in September with zero chance of winning. The chase/playoffs, gift drivers that had sucky a bunch of points to reset everyone to even, therefore you have it totally backward. If it were up to me the guy with the best average finish over 36 races should be champion.

        • Avatar

          Like I said before. A driver could lead every lap, winning every race during the year. The Championship race he leads every lap and gets passed coming out of the fourth turn racing to the checkered flag. He loses the Championship. Possible, yes but very unlikely, but a true scenario.
          So anything is possible.

  6. Avatar

    I must be in the minority because I thought the race was a dud up until “the big one”. From there on, it was a crap shoot. I also fall in the camp of not having Daytona or Talledega be the determining factor of who’s in and who’s out. I’d much rather have it be a short track like Richmond, Bristol or Martinsville. Hell, bring back North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and it’ll be even better. Get rid of California, Kentucky and one New Hampshire race. Let’s see more short track racing!