Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Daytona Non-Playoff Driver Breakdown

There are 10 — yes, 10 — NASCAR Cup Series drivers without a win so far in 2022 that have previously won in some capacity at Daytona International Speedway (six of whom have won the summer Cup race there) and 11 winless drivers in 2022 with a prior superspeedway win.

Guess where the final race of the regular season — and the final opportunity for these drivers to lock up a playoff spot — is?

Yep. Daytona.

While the choice to move the traditional Independence Day or Independence Day-adjacent race at Daytona away from that weekend to later in the summer as the final venue of the regular season was (and still is) a divisive one, it certainly means there’s the potential for a massive amount of chaos.

Thursday (Aug. 25) morning’s news that Kurt Busch won’t be in the playoffs means that two playoff berths are now up for grabs, meaning one driver will make it on points, but that doesn’t change the possibility of a walk-off win by someone far below the cutline.

So let’s run down the aforementioned Tenuous Ten or End-of-the-Line Eleven, or whatever NCAA Tournament-esque name one prefers to apply to these denizens of desperation, and dig into some stats.

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Ryan Blaney

Previous wins at Daytona: 2 (Cup, summer 2021; non-points Duel #1, 2018)

Ryan Blaney is heading to Florida as both the defending winner of the summer race and the driver in the playoffs on the cutline, so he’s got double motivation to get out front early and stay there for a large portion of the race.

The Team Penske pilot has been a consistent threat despite just one win across any series at Daytona, leading double-digit laps in each of the past two Cup races there and notably leading 118 circuits in the 2018 Daytona 500.

He has multiple wins at Talladega Superspeedway as well and ranks among the most often-picked competitors at such tracks, despite his average finish at Daytona hovering just south of 18th. Not even 30, he already has 14 starts in points-paying Daytona oval races, and three of his past four Cup races there have resulted in finishes of sixth or better.

Blaney makes the playoffs if he wins, if Martin Truex Jr. wins or if a repeat winner visits victory lane. The only problem exists if a new winner comes forth and he falls behind Truex in points (25-point gap between the two prior to Daytona).

Martin Truex Jr.

Previous wins at Daytona: 1 (Xfinity, summer 2005)

Someone’s ears were burning. Even with a championship and more than 30 wins under his belt, Daytona has been a thorn in Truex’s side: 34 Cup starts there in his career, yet just five top-10 finishes, nine results worse than 30th, an average finish below 20th and eight DNFs.

His Xfinity career there is a total reverse, with five top 10s in seven starts and an average finish of 8.7, as well as the 2005 summer victory.

The Florida superspeedway hasn’t been kind to Truex and his 25-point gap behind Blaney is going to be tough to make up unless the No. 12 crashes out. The only Joe Gibbs Racing driver not locked into the playoffs has to hope for that, a win for himself or a repeat winner on Saturday night.

Erik Jones

Previous wins at Daytona: 2 (Cup, summer 2018; non-points Clash, 2020)

OK, so the wreckfest of a Clash in 2020 doesn’t really count, as two-thirds of the field were eliminated in crashes and the remaining six pretty much all had damage. But Erik Jones found himself in a Cup victory lane for the first time at Daytona in the summer of 2018 after a more competitive wreckfest.

That race especially proved that the 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion could navigate his way through carnage to score a win, and given the vibes this weekend is putting out there that may very well be what whoever wins has to do for the trophy.

Aric Almirola

Previous wins at Daytona: 3 (Cup, summer 2014; Xfinity, summer 2016; non-points Bluegreen Vacations Duel #1, 2021)

We still don’t really know what Aric Almirola is doing next year, do we?

Doesn’t matter for this weekend.

Maybe it does, if retirement is still potentially on the table for him, but he has one of the most interesting arrays of Daytona (and superspeedway) wins in the entire field. His first career Cup win, the summer 2014 Daytona race, came after rain ended the race early and one of the biggest Big Ones you’ll ever see, and the summer 2016 Xfinity win was in the wake of a controversial caution that put an end to a fantastic last-lap battle. His 2018 Talladega win, too, has an oddity attached to it, in that the entire Stewart-Haas Racing stable dominated that race and were practically untouchable; rarely seen in superspeedway competition.

He also nearly won the 2018 Daytona 500 before ending up in the wall on the last lap, so the driver of the No. 10 might be itching to grab one flag-to-flag Cup victory at the hallowed track before hanging it up, be it after 2022 or further down the road (and a playoff spot, let’s not forget that).

Austin Dillon

Previous wins at Daytona: 3 (Cup, 2018 Daytona 500; Xfinity, summer 2015; non-points Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2, 2021)

Eldest brother Austin Dillon won Daytona in the Xfinity Series’ summer 2015 visit and then found himself in a not-so-optimal situation the very next day, when his No. 3 was sent hurtling into the catchfence and bounced back onto the track, upside-down, before being hit again.

Less than three years later, he went to victory lane in the Daytona 500 there, but it’s been more than two years since his last Cup win. However, his last run at one of NASCAR’s longtime two superspeedways resulted in a runner-up finish at Talladega.

With one Richard Childress Racing car already playoff-bound with Tyler Reddick‘s No. 8, the Chevrolet stable is bound to do whatever they can to take up one-eighth of the postseason field.

Bubba Wallace

Previous wins at Daytona: 0 (best finish: second, three times)

Bubba Wallace might not have a win at Daytona, but we’ve learned over the past few years to never count out the current driver of the No. 23: he’s consistently been up front at the superspeedway races and has three second-place efforts at the World Center of Racing (plus a runner-up finish in this year’s second Duel).

He had a streak of six straight top-15 finishes snapped with Watkins Glen last week, but it was a merciful hot streak after an absolutely horrendous first half of 2022; whether it was bad luck, circumstances out of his control or just having bad days, early-season fare wasn’t kind to last year’s Talladega winner.

With 23XI’s announcement that Busch will miss the start of the playoffs and Busch’s waiver withdrawal, the Toyota team doesn’t have a car in the 2022 postseason. This leads to the belief that, with Ty Gibbs focused on the Xfinity playoffs and in the No. 45 as a substitute, the Michael Jordan-co-owned stable will put every effort into making Wallace’s No. 23 as fast as possible and strategizing to have help in Gibbs nearby at the end.

Chris Buescher

Previous wins at Daytona: 1 (Cup, 2022 Bluegreen Vacations Duel #2)

Sure, some drivers might be hotter heading into this race than Chris Buescher, but few of them need this as much as he does.

Buescher rolls into Florida on a streak of two straight top 10s, the first time for the No. 17 team since early in the year, and a streak of four results of 16th or better. The Ford driver was chasing down Kevin Harvick for the win at Richmond Raceway before lapped traffic and fading momentum set Buescher back to third, but road courses have been a solid spot for him and he followed up Richmond with a top 10 at Watkins Glen International.

The longest-tenured current driver at RFK Racing completed a sweep of the Bluegreen Vacations Duels in February after teammate Brad Keselowski won the first, and has had a wild season featuring everything from a COVID-19 diagnosis to a bizarre flip at Charlotte Motor Speedway to a fire in the cockpit at the Indianapolis Road Course … and he still finished the race after the latter.

Buescher hasn’t made the playoffs since his fog-induced Pocono Raceway triumph secured him a spot in 2016. He could very well snap that drought this weekend.

Justin Haley

Previous wins at Daytona: 3 (Cup, summer 2019; Xfinity, summer 2020 & 2021)

Kaulig Racing is entering a fourth car for the Xfinity race on Friday (Aug. 26) for Justin Haley, the defending winner of the summer NXS race at Daytona and who could three-peat in the series at the track heading into Saturday.

That’d provide a ton of momentum for the 23-year-old in a season where the No. 31 has just two top 10s to date. He nearly has three wins in a row in Xfinity competition at the World Center of Racing, finishing second in 2019, and also almost won in 2018 before his move at the checkered flag earned him the wrath of NASCAR.

Haley averages a finish just south of 10th in Cup competition at Daytona and a win would make Kaulig the seventh different team in the 2022 playoffs.

Michael McDowell

Previous wins at Daytona: 1 (Cup, 2021 Daytona 500)

After 357 Cup starts for Michael McDowell in Feb. 2021, it seemed like that Cinderella win was never destined to come for the now-15-year driver: he was always in the mix at the end at superspeedways but was never in a position to win.

In last year’s Daytona 500, though (and since), all that has changed. McDowell opened last year with his first career victory and subsequently recorded a career-high in top-10 finishes. He doubled that high (five) to 10 this season with the advent of the Next Gen car, and despite just one top five so far he’s been a contender at road courses and several ovals.

Though he didn’t advance in the playoffs last season, this year McDowell has seemed a legitimate threat on a multitude of track types, including leading 34 circuits at Gateway. Daytona would be a good place for the No. 34 to lock up a second career win and postseason berth.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Previous wins at Daytona: 1 (Cup, summer 2017)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s most recent win was this summer Daytona race five years ago, when he won the event a few months after claiming his first career Cup victory at Talladega.

Since then, though, he hasn’t finished in the top 10 at Daytona at all. The then-driver of the No. 17 nearly repeated in 2018, sweeping the stages and leading 51 laps, but repeated contact with competitors and an eventual spin dropped him down the finishing order.

Though he has just five top 10s this season, Stenhouse put together an impressive runner-up at Dover Motor Speedway and did lead 22 laps in the now-superspeedway race at Atlanta.

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Brad Keselowski

Previous wins at Daytona: 3 (Cup, summer 2016; non-points Clash, 2018; 2022 Bluegreen Vacations Duel #1)

Who else are you gonna have your eye on at a superspeedway? Keselowski’s three top 10s in 2022 are the lowest for him in a season since 2010 (he had 14 or more every season from 2011-2021) and the new owner-driver has been a general non-factor all year, including a 14-race stretch between top-10 finishes despite embodying the first half of RFK Racing’s Bluegreen Vacations Duel sweep in February.

He is on a streak of seven top 20s, however, and one-fifth of his career wins (seven of 35) have come at superspeedways. One of those was in the summer Daytona race in 2016, and he’s no stranger to races with a walk-off atmosphere: during his tenure at Team Penske, Keselowski won Talladega in 2014 to secure a spot in the postseason’s penultimate round.

It begs the question of what happens if the final laps come down to teammates like Keselowski and Buescher (or, for what it’s worth, stable combos like McDowell and Todd Gilliland, Jones and Ty Dillon or Almirola and Cole Custer). The scenario that comes to mind is the fall Talladega race in 2011, when the RCR tandem of Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer were so far out in front that they battled among themselves for the win, with Bowyer slingshotting in the tri-oval to score the win.

Makes you wonder how Saturday will look with so many alliances likely set to crumble if things come down to teammates on the final lap.

The Others

Previous wins at Daytona: 0

While Corey LaJoie and Cody Ware have mathematically been eliminated, that’s not to say either couldn’t play spoiler to a lot of desperate drivers this weekend.

But it’s far more likely that a driver within the top 30 will win in general, and those others consist of Custer, Gilliland, Ty Dillon and Harrison Burton. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Blaney, Logano and Cindric all work to help Burton, on the Team Penske-allied Wood Brothers Racing, score the win and make the playoffs one-fourth Penske/Penske allies, while Gilliland was a factor early last week at Watkins Glen before suffering mechanical issues.

Dillon might be inclined to help teammate Jones to the win on some level, but he does have several top 10s at Daytona. Custer, meanwhile, never finished better than 14th at Daytona in Xfinity competition and has a best Cup finish of 11th. None of the other Cup finishes there were much to write home about, but he did make his 100th career premier series start last week at the Glen and also finished 11th. Maybe there’s some positive momentum there for the No. 41 after a dismal 2022 with just two top 10s to date.

It’s cliche, but one thing’s for sure: chaos will reign on Saturday night. Or, given how fickle Florida weather can be: chaos will reign at some point soon — maybe Saturday, maybe Sunday, maybe further into the week.

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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