Rain cancelled qualifying at Daytona on Friday, putting Kyle Larson on pole for tomorrow night’s race.
Last weekend, the rain made for an exciting start to the race at Watkins Glen. Today, it washed out qualifying for the final race of the regular season. What was scheduled to be a short race weekend at Daytona just got trimmed even more. No practice, no qualifying, just one big race under the lights.
The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series regular season comes to a conclusion tomorrow night at the same place where it began. Daytona International Raceway will once again serve as the grand stage as the 16-driver field for the playoffs is ultimately decided. There are 15 drivers that will be fighting for the final two playoff spots tomorrow night.
There are a number of scenarios that could play out in the race tomorrow night. Should one of the 14 drivers already in the playoffs win the race, the final two spots will be decided on points. Those two spots are currently held by Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. They would both advance to the playoffs in that situation. If a new winner emerges, chaos would ensue.
The 15 drivers fighting for one of the two final playoff spots are Blaney, Truex, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon, and Todd Gilliland.
|2022 Coke Zero Sugar 400 – Starting Lineup|
|1||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|2||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|3||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford|
|4||Daniel Suarez||TrackHouse Racing||Chevrolet|
|5||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota|
|6||Tyler Reddick||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet|
|7||Kevin Harvick||Stewart Haas Racing||Ford|
|8||Chris Buescher||RFK Racing||Ford|
|9||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford|
|10||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|11||Erik Jones||Petty GMS Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|12||Ross Chastain||TrackHouse Racing||Chevrolet|
|13||Martin Truex Jr||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota|
|14||Austin Cindric||Team Penske||Ford|
|15||Cole Custer||Stewart Haas Racing||Ford|
|16||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford|
|17||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|18||Justin Haley||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet|
|19||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota|
|20||Ricky Stenhouse Jr||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet|
|21||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet|
|22||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota|
|23||Ty Gibbs||23XI Racing||Toyota|
|24||Brad Keselowski||RFK Racing||Ford|
|25||Ty Dillon||Petty GMS Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|26||Chase Briscoe||Stewart Haas Racing||Ford|
|27||Aric Almirola||Stewart Haas Racing||Ford|
|28||Daniel Hemric||Kaulig Racing||Chevrolet|
|29||Harrison Burton||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford|
|30||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota|
|31||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|32||Todd Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Ford|
|33||Cody Ware||Rick Ware Racing||Ford|
|34||David Ragan||Rick Ware Racing||Ford|
|35||Landon Cassill||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet|
|36||BJ McLeod||Live Fast Motorsports||Ford|
|37||Noah Gragson||Beard Motorsports||Chevrolet|
Blaney enters Saturday with the most optimism among the contenders. The 28-year old won this race last year and will clinch the 16th playoff spot even if Truex wins. Blaney had a pair of runner-up finishes in the 2017 and 2020 Daytona 500 and in 2018, led 118 of the 207 laps. He has 191 laps led in 14 starts at this track, and starts 16th tomorrow. In all, Blaney has finished 6th or better in the last five Daytona races.
Truex has never had success on the superspeedways, finishing 13th or worse in six of the last seven races at Daytona. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is winless in his 69 superspeedway starts, but did win the first two stages of the Daytona 500 this year. That may be his path to getting into the playoffs, if he is able to collect enough stage points tomorrow night.
“Daytona is interesting,” Truex said. “This hasn’t been one of my better tracks, but I really enjoy coming here. In the Daytona 500 this year, we had a really strong car and led laps, won the first two stages and were feeling good about things. Then, we had an issue on pit road and had to go to the back and we were swept up in a crash.” Martin lines up 13th tomorrow, and will try to stay towards the front.
“To me the strategy at Daytona is to just try to stay up front as much as possible or as close to the front as you can and hope that when the big crash happens, it’s behind you. For us, as much of a wild card race as this is, I think we’ll have a good shot at winning and it’d be great to get our first superspeedway win with everything on the line. It’d be quite a story.”
One driver already locked in to the playoffs is Chase Elliott, who wrapped up the regular season championship last weekend at Watkins Glen. He comes into the weekend with plenty of motivation though. He was frustrated after his teammate Larson slid into him on the final restart of that race, stealing the victory. The two drivers will start on the front row for tomorrow’s race.
Chase has also never won at Daytona, which is obviously on his bucket list of things to do.
“I think that it’s just a balance that you really have to try to find and it’s one that I can’t say that I’ve really found quite as good as those other guys,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to have a knack for it. You’ve got to enjoy it and embrace it. To me, that’s kind of step one of figuring it out, just embracing it. I don’t know about the figuring it out part, but it’s been embraced.”
Larson likes the idea of starting up front but he is also cognizant of their points position. “It will be a wild race, especially in the last stage when drivers will be going for it. In our case, there are four or five of us close to second place in points. We can’t forget about that. We need to go chase points to try and stay up front all race long to finish second in regular season points and get those ten extra bonus points. Our goal will be to get to the finish and beat those guys behind us in points.”
The two drivers starting in Row 2 tomorrow have had a great week already, getting new contract extensions. Joey Logano got his extension with Team Penske done on Wednesday, and earlier today, Trackhouse Racing announced a new deal to keep Daniel Suarez in the NO. 99 Chevrolet. Suarez was asked about their strategy for Daytona.
“We are here to win both stages and then win the race,” Suarez stated. “That’s always our strategy. We want trophies. If you do that the points will always take care of themselves. I think we are a championship team. The beautiful part is that we get stronger as we go. I guarantee you in a month from now we’re going to be even stronger than we are right now. We’re going to keep working.”
That wasn’t the only driver announcement today, as Stewart Haas Racing announced that Aric Almirola will indeed be returning to the team next season. Almirola announced before the season that this would be his last as a full-time driver but he had been rumored to be reconsidering in recent weeks. It became official today when the 38-year old signed a new multi-year deal to stay in the No. 10 Mustang.
There was just one playoff spot up for grabs until news came out yesterday that Kurt Busch will not be part of the playoffs. The driver of the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing has withdrawn his granted waiver request, as he will not be ready to get back in the car next week when the playoffs begin. The car will still be eligible for the Owner’s championship and Ty Gibbs will continue to fill-in as Busch continues his recovery.
“As much as I wanted and hoped to be able to get back in the No. 45 car to make a playoff run with our team, it’s still not the right time for me,” said Busch. “In addition to not being cleared to return to racing, I know that I am not ready to be back in the car. I respect the sport of NASCAR, my fellow drivers and the fans too much to take up a playoff spot if I know I can’t compete for a championship this season. The decision was not an easy one, but I know it is the right thing to do. I will continue to take time to heal and strengthen as I prepare to be back in the car and will do all I can to help 23XI continue the success we have had this season.”
The only Toyota driver starting inside the top 12 tomorrow is Christopher Bell. Three of the “win and you’re in” drivers are starting near the front. Buescher starts 8th, McDowell in 9th, and Jones in 11th. Truex, Custer, Blaney, Haley, Stenhouse, and Austin Dillon will start between 13th and 21st tomorrow.
Looking at the back of the field, Bubba Wallace will have the most work to do tomorrow. He starts 30th in his No. 23 Toyota, one spot behind Burton’s Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Daniel Hemric is driving the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing this weekend with David Ragan in the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing. Noah Gragson returns to the No. 62 Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports, starting in 37th.
There have been 150 Cup races at Daytona, and the pole sitter has only gone to victory lane once in the last 23 races here. That was back in 2015 when Dale Earnhardt Jr won the Coke Zero 400 with Hendrick Motorsports. Larson will aim to duplicate that result tomorrow night.
There was no practice or qualifying, but the stage is set. One final race to determine the 16 drivers that will compete for the 2022 championship. Daytona has a history of writing some incredible stories, and another one awaits tomorrow night. Coverage for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 begins at 7 PM ET on NBC.