NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

What happened?

Ryan Blaney won the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night (Aug. 28). The race ended in overtime, under caution after a last-lap wreck on the backstretch.

Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece and Tyler Reddick rounded out the top-five finishers.

Kyle Larson clinched the regular season championship while Reddick secured the final playoff spot.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Larson started at the rear due to inspection failures, so it was William Byron leading the field in the early going. There was side-by-side racing from the front to the back as Byron held serve in the opening laps.

Drivers were aggressive from the start, with both lanes making runs at Byron and several drivers taking turns out front, including Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon. Ross Chastain also made some wild moves, ultimately ending up in the wall and on pit road with damage.

Chase Elliott got the lead just before the lap 20 competition caution, and he exited pit road in front after everyone stopped for service. Things started to cool down over the next portion of the race, with Elliott leading a single-file train around the outside line. He picked up debris on his grille and was forced to get out of line and jump in a few spots back to clear the debris, as Joey Logano inherited the lead.

Action picked right back up as stage one wound down, with Elliott making a daring move to pass Logano and regain control.

Elliott stayed out front and earned his third stage win of the season, while Kyle Busch crossed the line sideways in third.

Martin Truex Jr. took the lead on the stage two restart, controlling the field as a lot of drivers attempted to save fuel so they didn’t have to pit during the stage under green. The No. 19 got some debris on the grille during the run and decided to surrender the lead to Christopher Bell to clear the nose. Logano and Bell battled for the lead midway through the stage when the first crash of the day hit, collecting Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman and Anthony Alfredo. All were able to continue.

Logano rocketed to the lead on the restart with 19 to go in the stage. He held off a series of runs from that point on, never losing control of the field even though he didn’t always lead going across the line. Reddick and Blaney challenged him a few times on the top and bottom, respectively, but Logano was always able to side-draft and hold the spot. The stage win was Logano’s fifth of the year.

The lead changed hands a number of times in the early parts of the final stage. Hamlin, Logano, Harvick, Chastain and Blaney all paced the field at different points. The Ford brigade made the first move to pit road for green flag stops, coming as a group with 37 laps to go.

As the Fords pulled off the track, Wallace and Chastain battled side by side for the lead. The lead pack, led by those two, was considerably faster than the Fords after they rejoined the track, so both Toyotas and Chevys were content to ride it out for a while before stopping.

Busch passed Wallace for the lead with just over 20 to go, then a caution came out. The Rick Ware Racing trio of Cody Ware, Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase were the only three drivers involved.

All the Toyotas and Chevys pitted under caution, which put the Fords out front, led by Logano, Blaney and Almirola. The restart with 16 to go seemed to go smoothly, until one lap later when the first Big One struck. Truex got out of shape in the pack on the backstretch, spinning right into Byron and collecting Brad Keselowski, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Landon Cassill, Reddick and Alfredo.

After a brief red flag for cleanup, the next restart came with 10 to go. Logano and Blaney worked together to stay out front, but Elliott and Chris Buescher came barreling through the pack to get to the lead with seven to go. With five laps remaining, Logano cut a tire and was forced to get out of line and pit.

On the next lap, Elliott tried to block a hard-charging Matt DiBenedetto one too many times and they both ended up in the wall. Another Big One ensued, collecting Busch, Preece, Cole Custer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kaz Grala, Bell, Keselowski, Hamlin and Chastain.

Buescher and Blaney led on the overtime restart, with Blaney pulling ahead on the inside thanks to a huge push from Corey LaJoie. Lines were formulating behind Blaney on the final lap, but contact between Suarez and Kurt Busch while battling Harvick for second destroyed another handful of cars and allowed Blaney to win under caution. Larson, Erik Jones, Dillon, Chastain, LaJoie and Bowman were involved.

The win was Blaney’s second in as many weeks, his third on the season and seventh of his career. 

Who stood out?

Blaney proved yet again he’s one of the best drafters in the series with his third career superspeedway win. His strength was on display last week at Michigan International Speedway, and then again at Daytona. Blaney has joined an elite group of superspeedway racers, each with a knack for staying out of trouble and sticking around at the end.

Team Penske was one of the teams to really organize and work together on drafting tracks over the last few years. It’s clearly paying off now as Blaney can go out and win at these tracks even without teammates around him.

Unfortunately for the No. 12, Talladega Superspeedway is just one of 10 playoff races. Blaney will have to perform at all different track types to go far in the playoffs. His playoff point total puts him in a solid position for the first round, then they’ll have Talladega in the Round of 12. After that, anything can happen. The No. 12 hasn’t had the pure speed it showed in 2020, but Blaney has delivered in the clutch.

See also
Up to Speed: Why This Year’s Cup Series Playoffs Will Be Different For Ryan Blaney

Wallace matched his career-best finish, setting 23XI Racing up well to finish the season strong. The No. 23 has been quick on superspeedways all year, and Daytona was no different. Everything fell Wallace’s way on the late crashes and he cashed in on a second-place finish following Buescher’s DQ.

Daytona doesn’t translate to Darlington Raceway, Richmond Raceway or Bristol Motor Speedway and so on, but Saturday night is still a moment on which the team can build. 23XI will add former champion, Kurt Busch, to the fold next year, and anything that Wallace and crew chief Mike Wheeler can learn over the next 10 weeks will only help the organization for the future.

Reddick somehow survived to earn his first playoff berth. The No. 8 looked like it was done after Reddick drove into Truex on a late wreck. Oil was leaking, the car was smoking and playoff hopes were shrinking.

He limped around the track over the final laps, watching as other cars continued to wreck out. In the end, Reddick brought it home in fifth. Just an incredible fight; he won’t be an easy out in the Round of 16.

Elliott’s late-summer surge continued with another stage win and top-10 finish. The No. 9 had race-winning speed at Daytona, but Elliott got a little too block-happy in the final laps. Regardless, Elliott leaves Daytona with a ton of momentum. He finished ninth with a beat-up racecar, won a stage for the second straight week and now has top 10s in six of the last seven races. The defending champ has to be optimistic heading into the postseason, although no driver has won back-to-back titles since Jimmie Johnson in 2009 and 2010.

Who fell flat?

Dillon has nothing to show for the most consistent season of his career. The No. 3 actually finished the regular season 13th in the overall standings, ahead of four drivers with victories. Dillon currently has a 15.2 average finish, ahead of his career-best 15.9 in 2016. The anomaly of this season — with two winners outside the top 20 in points — will leave Dillon outside the playoffs. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you’ve been a top-16 driver all season and don’t get to compete for a title.

See also
Austin Dillon Falls Short of Playoffs After Late Crash at Daytona

Buescher was oh-so-close to winning his way into the playoffs in a valiant effort at Daytona before he failed post-race inspection. Buescher’s second-place effort was all for naught, as the No. 17 was disqualified for an illegal track bar mounting assembly. But let’s talk about his race before the post-race news: He led coming to the final restart, fell way before Blaney and then still almost got back to the lead. Buescher has routinely been one of the top superspeedway finishers in the past few years, so this finish comes as no surprise. Even though he’s leaving Daytona upset — and it’s even worse after the DQ — Buescher’s head should be held high.

2021 has been a career year for Buescher; he’s currently well above his best career average finish for a season and has led more laps (85) than he did in the last five years combined (64). He finished the regular season 16th in points, meaning Buescher would’ve made the playoffs if drivers below him didn’t win. The future is bright for this No. 17 team, especially with Keselowski joining the organization. He’ll be a perfect mentor for Buescher, and I wouldn’t be surprised if both cars are in the playoff mix next year.

Truex’s superspeedway woes continued with another big wreck. In his last 22 superspeedway starts (11 at both Daytona and Talladega), Truex has two top 10s. He’s finished 20th or worse in 17 of those 22 starts. Safe to say this type of racing doesn’t suit Truex, as he’ll be the reverse of Blaney in this playoff run, dreading Talladega in the Round of 12.

What did this race prove?

NASCAR has perfected this superspeedway package. The racing at Daytona and Talladega has been stellar over the last few years. Before the race, NASCAR slightly tweaked it by reducing horsepower to lower speeds and hopefully avoiding cars getting airborne like we saw with Logano at Talladega.

The racing Saturday night didn’t look any different from the last few years — and that’s a good thing. No cars got up in the air, drivers stayed bunched up in the pack and it was easy to get a run on the car in front of you. Daytona’s product was a huge win for NASCAR after making a minor, but necessary alteration.

Daytona (again) delivered as the regular season finale. The traditionalists weren’t happy when Daytona got moved from Fourth of July weekend. I might’ve been among them, but that all changed the second I saw the intensity of last year’s race. That happened again this year, as a number of drivers outside the playoffs nearly crashed the party. Daytona serves as the perfect place to close the regular season, giving everybody a chance to throw away their last shot at winning.

Paint scheme of the race

Less than two weeks ago, I raved about Almirola’s Mobil 1 scheme at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. I hate to pick a scheme with the exact same sponsor in such a short amount of time, but Briscoe gave me no choice. The silver Mobil 1 Ford with the flying pegasus at Daytona was just perfect under the lights.

Better than last time?

Last year, Daytona delivered an incredible show. The first two stages were filled with awesome racing and no cautions for wrecks. Different green flag pit timing created a ton of intrigue and battles between manufacturers. As usual, things went off the rails in the final 10 laps — there were two massive pileups and another crash on the final lap. The race ended under green with Byron winning his first career race, clinching a playoff berth while he was on the bubble battling with Johnson and DiBenedetto.

This year, Daytona was equally as exciting. The first two stages only had one caution for a wreck and a ton of action-packed racing for stage wins. It was an eerily similar race to last year as the intensity ratcheted up in the late laps with multiple big wrecks. This time, the race ended under yellow, though, and had a repeat winner, so I’ll give 2020 the edge over 2021. Both races were fantastic with tons of intrigue, entertainment and just good racing.

Playoff picture

There was no surprise winner at Daytona and Reddick held on for the final playoff spot. Blaney’s third win of the season moved him up to the second seed in the playoffs, just behind Larson.

Speaking of Larson, the driver of the No. 5 used his 20th-place finish to clinch his first career regular-season title and the all-important 15 playoff points. On the bubble, Reddick finished 29 points ahead of Dillon for the 16th spot. 

Here’s a look at the full standings before the playoff seeding reset:

And here’s how they’ll stack up once the standings are adjusted for playoff points:

What’s next?

It’s time for the playoffs. The Cup Series heads to Darlington Raceway for its annual Labor Day Weekend event. It won’t be throwback weekend this year after that tradition was moved to Darlington’s first race of 2021 back in May. The Cook Out Southern 500 will go green on Sunday (Sept. 5) at 6 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

3 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill B

If you showed me the top 5 finishers without telling me anything else, I would be able to tell you that the race was at either Talladega or Daytona.

Echo

Absolutely. Masterful driving got those guys to the front.

DoninAjax

Why can’t NA$CAR in its infinite changing of rules guarantee the POINTS leader after 26 events a spot in the final event? It would mean the first 26 events actually mean something. If it means 5 drivers for the title so be it. That’s one less invisible car..

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch