Did you notice? … The movement of Daytona International Speedway to the regular season finale slot has certainly delivered in more ways than one?
Three years into the move, this may be the most intriguing one yet. The parity of the Next Gen car has led to 15 winners in the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season, leaving just one playoff spot open entering the regular-season finale.
This Saturday’s (Aug. 27) Coke Zero Sugar 400 will give fans the best opportunity thus far to see 16 winners in the regular season for the first time since the playoff system was implemented in 2014. It could also come at the expense of two of the sport’s superstars, 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, the latter of whom owns a 25-point cushion over Truex for the final playoff spot. However, points may not matter when the dust settles after 160 laps on Saturday night.
Among the 15 drivers still eligible for the final spot, nine have won Cup races on superspeedways and eight have won in Cup at Daytona. That includes six drivers who have won the summer race at the World Center of Racing. Let’s rank who the favorite is to claim the final spot all the way to the longest shot.
Ryan Blaney: Blaney isn’t just one of the best superspeedway racers among winless drivers, he’s one of the best in the series. Of his seven career Cup wins, three of them have come on superspeedways.
The most recent one?
It was this race a year ago when Blaney won his second race in a row and third of 2021. When asked by FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass if he felt he was in control of his own destiny after Watkins Glen International, Blaney replied, “Not at Daytona.”
He is certainly motivated after his Penske teammate Austin Cindric ran him up the track for the Daytona 500 win in February. If there is anyone you want in a crucial position at Daytona, it’s Blaney. In 14 starts, he has a win, four top fives, six top 10s and 191 laps led. Throw in his two wins at Talladega Superspeedway, and Blaney has a solid shot of holding onto the final playoff spot.
Martin Truex Jr.: Going off of wins, this spot is probably too high for Truex. After all, he’s never won a superspeedway race in Cup in his 17th full-time season. However, never say never, especially at Daytona. Truex nearly won this race in 2018, losing the lead to Erik Jones in the closing laps. Don’t forget his near-win in the Daytona 500 in 2016 either. What if we don’t get a new winner?
Outpointing Blaney at Daytona is tough, but not impossible. In this year’s Daytona 500, Truex won both stages before finishing 13th in the end. Being in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment with some good draft partners in the Toyota stable should be a welcome sign for Truex. He may not win, but he’s a champion for a reason and knows how to get the job done.
Erik Jones: So far, we’re going in order of points by ranking who has the best shot to win their way into the playoffs, but Jones is up here for valid reasons. As mentioned above, he won Daytona in 2018, earning his first career win in doing so. He also won the 2020 Clash at Daytona in a junked car. Of course, both came with JGR, but Jones has had opportunities with current team Petty GMS Motorsports.
Jones’ biggest miss on a win in 2022 came at Talladega earlier this year when he threw a high block in the tri-oval, allowing Ross Chastain to sneak by. The No. 43 has been revitalized in many ways this year, and that could lead to a walk-off win.
Michael McDowell: Michael McDowell is enjoying a career-best year, even after making the playoffs in 2021. He has doubled his top-10 count from five in 2021 to 10 this year, and he’s been a factor for the win in a couple of races (most recently at Watkins Glen). How did he earn that playoff spot in 2021? By winning his first career Cup race with the season-opening Daytona 500.
McDowell has a knack for superspeedway racing, nearly winning several races on them. He finished fourth in the summer Daytona race with Leavine Family Racing in 2017, then led 20 laps in 2018 with Front Row Motorsports in their first season together. He also finished seventh at Daytona in February. The glass slipper fit the foot last year, and it very well could fit the other one this time.
Brad Keselowski: Though he sits 27th in points, Brad Keselowski is one of the most experienced drivers and best superspeedway racers in this group. He won the summer Daytona race in 2016 and is a six-time Talladega winner. The RFK Racing driver/co-owner won the first Duel race this year and led a race-high 67 laps in the Daytona 500 before finishing ninth.
It’s hard to picture the playoffs without Keselowski, despite the equipment difference between Penske and RFK, but here we are. The biggest concern is the fact that he has 12 DNFs in 26 starts at Daytona.
Bubba Wallace: Bubba Wallace‘s only career win thus far was a rain-shortened affair, but it came at Talladega last year. The 23XI Racing driver has been one of the best on this track type in recent years, including a pair of runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500 (2018, 2022). He also finished runner-up to Blaney in this race last year.
The Mobile, Ala., native typically finds himself near the front at the end of these races, which is a good characteristic to have. His recent streak of four consecutive top 10s could certainly give him the boost he needs to put both 23XI cars in the playoffs.
Chris Buescher: It can be argued that Chris Buescher has been the better driver at RFK Racing this season. With near-wins at Sonoma Raceway and Richmond Raceway, plus tying his career-high in top 10s already with eight, Buescher is quietly carrying some momentum into Daytona.
Buescher joined Keselowski in winning the other Daytona Duel this season in a sweep for the team and crossed the line second at Daytona last summer but was disqualified after failing post-race inspection. The driver of the No. 17 should quietly be a favorite to bust the playoff picture this weekend.
Aric Almirola: Still in limbo about whether he will return for another season or not, this could potentially be Aric Almirola‘s last shot at making the playoffs in his career. Since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, Almirola has never missed the playoffs. His first career win came in a rain-shortened race at Daytona in July of 2014, and his second came at Talladega in 2018. Needless to say, Almirola is a threat on superspeedways.
Almirola opened up the year with three straight top 10s, including a fifth in the Daytona 500. However, he has cooled off, recording only four top 10s since then. But Almirola has proven to pull off an upset before; just look at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last year.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: One of the biggest threats to pull off an upset on superspeedways is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. His two career Cup wins both came on superspeedways, including this race in 2017. We know the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Chevrolet will be fast, it’s just a matter of hanging around until the finish.
Stenhouse hasn’t had a top 10 at Daytona since that win in 2017. He was running up front in this year’s Daytona 500 before getting turned by Keselowski late. Stenhouse hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017, so he will be looking to snap the drought this week.
Austin Dillon: One top 10 in the past 13 races is concerning for Austin Dillon, who was in a tight points battle in this race a year ago. Luckily for him, Daytona is a great spot to right the ship. He won the 2018 Daytona 500 and has eight top 10s in 18 starts in Daytona Beach.
Richard Childress Racing brings strong cars to superspeedways, so Dillon should make some noise before this one is all said and done. If not, he will miss the playoffs for back-to-back years for the first time since 2014-15.
Justin Haley: The only reason Justin Haley is this far down the list is because of his lack of experience. If you go back to this race in 2019, you’ll remember Haley staying out during a caution to take the lead and ultimately the win when the sky opened up.
Two of Haley’s four NASCAR Xfinity Series wins came at Daytona and all four came on superspeedways. The Kaulig Racing driver is looking to punch the team its first ticket to the playoffs, and he is a threat to his fellow competitors trying to race their way in.
Ty Dillon: For a driver searching for a ride for next season, this is the perfect opportunity to make a case. Out of Ty Dillon’s seven career Cup top 10s, three have come at Daytona.
Compared to Petty GMS teammate Jones, Dillon only has one top 10 to Jones’ nine and sits 29th in points, while Jones is 17th. However, Daytona is the great equalizer, and Dillon has had most of his Cup success on superspeedways.
Cole Custer: Cole Custer has almost seemed non-existent at times this season, going nearly a whole year without a top 10. That said, he has picked it up some recently, earning his first top 10 of 2022 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which was reconfigured for superspeedway-style racing.
The bad news for Custer is that he’s never recorded a top 10 at Daytona. The good news is he has a load of Ford teammates to work with. It will be tough, but once again, no one can be ruled out here.
Todd Gilliland/Harrison Burton: Both of these rookies made their first Daytona start in the 500 back in February. Harrison Burton impressed in the beginning, running up front before the first Big One ended with him flipping down the backstretch. Todd Gilliland was in the top five late in the race before getting involved in a crash not of his own doing. Both drivers are long shots to win, but crazier things have happened.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- Sports Business Journal‘s Adam Stern reported last week that Kaulig Racing was among the teams in the Kyle Busch sweepstakes. Are they the favorite landing spot now? It seemed unlikely weeks ago, but it should be taken note of. In a press conference at Watkins Glen, Busch alluded to a big change. Could this refer to his asking price … or perhaps his next destination? Kaulig certainly fanned the flames of suspicion when they tweeted their Watkins Glen post-race report, stating it was a “rowdy” week of racing at the Glen. Who has that nickname in the garage again?
- If Blaney, Truex or both miss the playoffs, several races will certainly be pointed to as missed opportunities. For Blaney, Phoenix Raceway (143 laps led) and the spring Richmond Raceway (128 laps led) stick out, with Daytona, Atlanta, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway being misses too. Truex’s No. 19 team could point to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, spring Richmond (80 laps led), Nashville Superspeedway (82 laps led) and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (172 laps led) as missed chances. With Blaney sitting third in points and Truex in sixth, it raises the question of how fair the playoff system really is.
- Kurt Busch is out once again at Daytona, hoping to return for the playoffs. But what does NASCAR do if he can’t? If Busch returns during the Round of 16, he will have a chance to advance to the Round of 12. But if he is forced to miss more time, how fair is it to Blaney or Truex if they miss the playoffs while one playoff driver isn’t competing?
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.