Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Here’s Who’s Most Likely to Snag the Last Cup Playoff Berths

This weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway injects the breed of chaos NASCAR has probably craved ever since the win-and-you’re-in element was introduced to the playoffs, thanks to 15 different winners throughout the regular season to date.

Entering the week, just one spot was up for grabs, going to either Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. or one of those two plus 13 others if any of them were to win Daytona.

But despite his hope that he’d be back in his No. 45 by the playoffs, Kurt Busch rescinded his playoff waiver Aug. 25 due to injury, meaning two spots are available instead.

It’s still the same 15 drivers, though. With the caveat that one must finish in the top 30 in Cup points to score a playoff spot should one win, Corey LaJoie and Cody Ware are mathematically ineligible whether they end up in victory lane at the end of the night or not, due to their gap behind 30th in points.

Despite the crapshoot nature of races at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, there still are some clear frontrunner candidates this weekend to take the final two spots.

Whether it’s because they’ll point their way in or because they’re generally superspeedway aces who have a good chance of finding their way at the front at race’s end, here’s each driver ranked from least likely to be part of the playoffs when the dust settles to most likely.

15. Harrison Burton

It’d be a Cinderella story to see Harrison Burton get Wood Brothers Racing its 100th Cup win — and maybe that day is coming eventually. But Daytona this weekend seems to be neither the time nor place.

Not that WBR doesn’t have a solid superspeedway pedigree; Trevor Bayne‘s 2011 Daytona 500 shocker comes to mind. Burton himself, however, has not shown particular superspeedway prowess just yet. He finished 39th in the Daytona 500 this year and 34th at Talladega in the spring, and his only other Cup start on either track was a 20th-place run for Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2021.

See also
Kurt Busch Will Miss Beginning of Playoffs, Waiver Withdrawn

Anything can happen at Daytona, but Burton doesn’t yet seem to be able to find his way to the front and stay there. A Hail Mary is possible this weekend — true of anyone on this list, I guess. He’s just the least flashy choice.

14. Cole Custer

All indications are that Cole Custer, despite a lackluster third Cup season, has job security at Stewart-Haas Racing. That alone indicates he’s unlikely to go out of his way to make any sort of risky moves to take the checkered flag before anyone else; it’s not like his job depends on making the playoffs (yet).

And there’s nothing to suggest Custer’s much of a superspeedway guy, anyway. In the last 10 superspeedway events, he has just one top 10, a 10th at Talladega in 2021. He’s got an average finish of 22.7 in that span.

Probably not the guy you want to get behind if you want to fight to the front.

13. Todd Gilliland

Todd Gilliland gets the edge over fellow rookie Burton simply because of equipment.

In a general sense, that’s something that would have felt crazy to say about Front Row Motorsports years ago. But the team has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and it’s always been a force to be reckoned with at Daytona and Talladega, going back to David Ragan earning the organization its first win a little less than a decade ago.

Gilliland’s first two Cup superspeedway starts haven’t shown much, with finishes of 33rd and 27th. But it’s difficult to count out an FRM car at a superspeedway, especially when both of its entries need to win to get in. One imagines teammate Michael McDowell will get precedence if a chance at the win comes down to one pushing the other, though.

12. Ty Dillon

What does Ty Dillon have to lose? He’s already out at Petty GMS Motorsports at the end of 2022, and he’s basically auditioning for a seat elsewhere at this point. You know what’s a good resume builder? A Cup playoff appearance, even if he’d probably be out after the Round of 16.

Dillon has some recent success at these tracks, too, with a third-place run for Germain Racing at Talladega in 2020. He also came home 11th in the Daytona 500 this year.

He’s one of those guys who you figure is more inclined to make some risky passes than, say, Custer or Burton. Anywhere else, you wouldn’t expect much from him. But this is as Hail Mary-esque as you’re going to get this weekend, and he’s got the team in Petty GMS to do it.

11. Chris Buescher

Despite some strong runs here and there in 2022, Chris Buescher doesn’t necessarily scream superspeedway winner.

His best run in the last 10 Daytona and Talladega events came in 2020, when he finished third at the former. He’s often near the front, with four top 10s in those 10 races.

Respectable showings, sure. But not the guy who seems to really dice it up for the lead at race’s end. More the type who’s ready to pounce if something takes out everyone in front of him.

That could indeed pay dividends this weekend. But more often than not, it means you’ll end up the bridesmaid rather than the bride.

10. Justin Haley

Kaulig Racing power at superspeedways is well established, especially in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Justin Haley, too, has past success at this very track, with his rain-shortened 2019 win for Spire Motorsports.

But checking out Haley’s stats outside of the win, one finds an above-average superspeedway racer for sure, but not necessarily the upper echelon when it comes to this list. His best showing in the last 10 Daytona or Talladega races is a sixth-place effort in 2021 at the former, plus 11th- and 12th-place efforts at Talladega in 2020 and earlier this year.

Thing is, Kaulig probably thinks it has a good shot of spoiling the playoff party with a longshot relative newcomer like Haley. So you can be sure it’ll be throwing a lot of effort into this weekend — and to boot, Haley’s got a teammate in Daniel Hemric who can help him to the front.

9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Of the drivers on this list who have run each of the last 10 superspeedway races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has the lowest average finish at 23.9, an entire position lower than Custer.

So why’s he so much higher? Because Stenhouse has a reputation for unpredictability, for no-holds-barred superspeedway racing. It’s why he won two of them in 2017 — and it’s also why he’s sometimes found himself on the wrecker instead of fighting for the win at race’s end.

Stenhouse finished second at Talladega in 2020. Otherwise, he’s finished no better than 16th the last 10 superspeedway races, with multiple results 30th or worse. But despite some underwhelming statistics more often than not, he’s always in the conversation at Daytona and Talladega, simply because of what could be.

To that end, don’t count him out.

8. Erik Jones

What’s working against Erik Jones this weekend is a substandard streak at Daytona in the last five races there; he’s finished in the top 15 just once (11th, 2021) and has an average finish of 26.4 in that span, worst of any drivers on this list who’ve appeared in all five events.

But then there’s Talladega. There, he’s got an average of 9.8 in the last five races, best of anyone on this list. No wins, but a runner-up finish and four top 10s.

If Talladega Jones shows up instead of Daytona Jones, suddenly you’ve got a contender. Unfortunately, though the two tracks are quite similar at the end of the day, they still have their minute differences, and perhaps Jones simply can’t rekindle the magic he’s found in Alabama farther south in Florida.

If something finally clicks, Petty GMS could have a playoff berth in its first season as a merged organization.

7. Aric Almirola

Before the reports that Aric Almirola‘s planned retirement at the end of 2022 might not actually come to fruition, his last two major changes at a win to close his career were this weekend and at Talladega.

And though he may indeed be back next year after all, one has to think getting into the playoffs before his career ends is still top of mind. Especially when the shiny new SHR rookie in Chase Briscoe has already punched his ticket.

Almirola’s tough to count out on superspeedways, winning before and coming incredibly close on other occasions. And after a less-stellar stretch to kick off the decade, he finished fifth in the Daytona 500 this year and followed it with a 13th-place run at Talladega.

Even if the eventual results don’t show it, Almirola often finds his way to the front. He’ll probably be there this weekend too, but there are others who are more likely to visit victory lane when all is said and done than he is.

6. Austin Dillon

Getting both of its cars into the playoffs would be a definite boost for Richard Childress Racing, especially with regards to Austin Dillon‘s No. 3. After all, unlike Tyler Reddick, Dillon seems firmly entrenched at RCR, so it’s important to show the organization that he isn’t its also-ran, the second fiddle.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: A Tale of 2 Drivers & NASCAR's Playoffs

Luckily, Dillon has plenty of past success at Daytona. And he’s also done well in the Next Gen car on superspeedways, finishing runner-up at Talladega this year.

Dillon’s not exactly the interesting choice; other than Blaney and Truex, I’d wager he’d have the least amount of buzz surrounding his playoff berth should he win. But it’s hard to argue against his track record; of the 15 drivers on this list, he has the third-best average finish at the last 10 superspeedway races at 15.4, behind only Blaney and Bubba Wallace.

5. Brad Keselowski

Despite a season to forget in his first foray into Cup team ownership as part of RFK Racing, Brad Keselowski still has a solid shot of making the playoffs.

That’s because Daytona is the deciding factor, and Keselowski is a good superspeedway racer no matter the car. He finished first and second while still with Team Penske at Talladega last year, and in 2022 he finished ninth in the Daytona 500 after winning his Bluegreen Vacations Duel.

Easy to forget the latter happened, given how rare it has been to see the No. 6 near the front in 2022. But things at least started off on a strong note for Keselowski, and now he’s got his back against the wall at the site of one of his best runs of the year.

Chances are he’ll either end up in victory lane or wreck trying. I like Keselowski’s odds.

4. Michael McDowell

The 2021 Daytona 500 champion has not won since, which puts him in this on-the-outside-looking-in situation this weekend.

Still, it’s been a banner year for McDowell, who’s managed 10 top 10s in a car that used to struggle to break the top 20. FRM isn’t just a strong superspeedway team anymore; McDowell’s been the prime example of that.

… but FRM’s still very good at superspeedways, regardless. McDowell’s had a good year at them this year, too, with seventh- and eighth-place finishes so far.

Barring some early wreck, McDowell will be in the running for the win. And wouldn’t that be something if FRM made it to the playoffs two years in a row? You’ve got to imagine that’s on the team’s mind entering this weekend.

3. Bubba Wallace

Anytime someone dares say something positive about Bubba Wallace on the Internet, there’s a certain brand of keyboard warrior who’ll come out of the woodwork to scoff at the notion.

Scoff away if you must, but anyone who’s paying attention knows you can’t count Wallace out at Daytona and Talladega these days. He won at Talladega last year, and his last two Daytona races have resulted in second-place results. In the last 10 superspeedway races, he’s averaging a finish of 11.6, second only to Blaney’s 10.4

Adding an extra wrinkle: suddenly Wallace is 23XI Racing’s only hope at postseason representation due to Busch’s prolonged recovery.

That pressure could do Wallace in. But he clearly knows how to get to the front at Daytona and Talladega — and stay there. Of the drivers who can only make the playoffs by winning, he’s got the best shot.

2. Martin Truex Jr.

Here’s where this list gets boring, because when all is said and done, chances are Truex and Blaney will end up in the playoffs.

Why? Because it won’t be a first-time winner on the season in victory lane Saturday night. Someone who’s already won this year — my money’s on a Hendrick Motorsports car — will emerge victorious instead. Possibly because all the need-to-wins wrecked one another trying to get to the front.

But between Blaney and Truex, the latter is less likely to make it in if someone other than the pair indeed wins. Truex’s recent superspeedway track record leaves much to be desired, with just two top fives and top 10s in the last 10 races.

Though he did finish fifth at Talladega earlier this year. Maybe there’s something there.

1. Ryan Blaney

Blaney’s No. 1 because the scenarios that kick him out of the running seem the least likely of all.

Let’s say he doesn’t win. Which, for starters, is an iffy proposition. Of this 15-driver group, he’s the only one with more than one win in the last 10 superspeedway events, doing so at Daytona last year and at Talladega in 2020. As mentioned, he’s got the best average finish of any driver on this list in that span.

But even if he doesn’t win, he has to have a supremely terrible day to lose out to Truex from a points perspective (and that’s assuming Truex doesn’t win himself instead). Like, bottom of the pylon type of day. And even if that happened, Truex would have to not share a similar fate.

A lot can go wrong at Daytona and Talladega, that much has been made clear over the years. Seemingly impossible scenarios have played out when we least expect it, and they’ll continue to long into the future of Cup cars at these tracks.

Of everyone on this ranking, though, Blaney still has the clearest path to a playoff berth.

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

Share this article

8 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
DoninAjax

Why the picture of Bubba? Why not Blaney? He’s number 1!

Bill B

Because he’s…….
….so damn photogenic.

kb

It is really amazing that one man’s concussion can have such an impact on one level of a sport. The consequences and shakeups are insane. Too bad.

Wishing Kurt a full recovery, he did the right thing.

DoninAjax

I think the Sidney Crosby concussion in the NHL had more impact. At least people are realizing the consequences of concussions.

Bill B

You media guys are trying hard to make this sound more exciting than it is. Most years there are a handful of guys who can point their way into the playoffs, which creates a certain level of supposed drama. This year there are only two.

As for someone winning the final regular season race and grabbing a playoff berth, that is the same every year. Why are you all wetting your pants trying to make it seem like the chance of a back-marker team winning the final race this year is anything new? What does it matter anyway? If one of those long shots win, they will be out in the first round.

Fed Up

I see y’all found a way to work in the weekly Bubba picture/report.

DoninAjax

It seems like it is daily, Click bait!

Echo

We are here every week Kevin, no coming out of the woodwork just to laugh at you. Keep practicing, you’ll learn.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

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