Two playoff spots are up for grabs tonight at Daytona, as the regular season comes to a close.
Win and you’re in. Sounds simple, right? That is the scenario that 15 drivers are facing tonight as they do battle on NASCAR’s biggest stage – under the lights at Daytona. With 14 playoff spots accounted for, drivers will be doing anything and everything they can to make their way to the front of the 38-car field.
Desperation typically produces drama, and there will be no shortage of either in this race. With no practice scheduled, and rain washing out qualifying yesterday, the first time these cars hit the pavement will be when they see the green flag.
While 15 drivers will be battling for the two playoff spots, they won’t be alone on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. The 14 drivers already locked in will still be seeking to collect precious playoff points, and those outside of that will still be aiming for a race win at Daytona. With future jobs and such also on the table, the pressure will be felt by everyone.
The two top names on the list of contenders are Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. These two have been battling it out for the final spot ever since Harvick won at Michigan. Somehow, both of these talented drivers are still winless this season. Oddly enough, both also signed contract extensions this year, so they will be back with Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
Blaney is in the best position to find his way to the playoffs, as he holds a 25-point edge over Truex. Even if Martin were to win the race, Blaney would still be in. The only way he doesn’t advance would be if he finishes near the back, Martin overcomes that 25-point gap, and one of the other 13 drivers wins the race. It would take a perfect storm, but Blaney is not taking anything for granted.
“You can’t stress yourself out about it,” Blaney said. “It is either going to happen, or it isn’t, whether you make the Playoffs or not.” He doesn’t necessarily have to win, but doing so would make him the first driver since Tony Stewart in 2005-2006 to win back-to-back summer races at Daytona.
Truex will need some help, and history isn’t exactly on his side. In his 69 career superspeedway starts in Cup, Truex has never won. The 2017 series champion has just three top-five finishes and five top-ten finishes in 34 starts at Daytona. The good news is he won both stages of the Daytona 500 this year, and finished 2nd in this race in 2018. The key for him is staying out of trouble, which almost never happens.
“It hasn’t been one of my better tracks,” Truex admits. “We had a really strong car here in February though. We led a ton of laps and won two stages. Then we got kind of banged up and then finished kind of torn up, so didn’t have the speed at the end of the race. I had a really strong day going and Talladega went good as well, so I feel like our car is really fast here. And hopefully we can take advantage of that. Would be a fun way to win one here with everything on the line.”
Without a new winner tonight, both Blaney and Truex will make the playoffs.
Things get very interesting among the rest of the contenders. Daytona has proven over the years that anyone can win here, and this season has been full of parity. One driver that is heavily favored tonight is Bubba Wallace.
Bubba has been knocking on the door at Daytona for quite some time. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota finished runner-up in each of the last two races here. Wallace has led laps in each of the last three Daytona races, and has three runner-up finishes overall with 2nd place finishes in the Daytona 500 this year and back in 2018. Another top-five result in 2020 make Bubba a solid bet for tonight, in what could be the ultimate storybook ending.
“We have to go out and earn it,” Wallace said. “No matter if you finish second, how many times we’ve done it, we can still blow up or we could still break something. You just don’t know. So for us it’s important to not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on what we need to do. It’s just making sure you’re there for the last two laps and set yourself up for being one of the first four cars. That’s what we need to focus on.”
Jones took over the No. 43 machine that was vacated by Wallace, and has had a very good season with the Petty GMS team. He won this race in 2018 and certainly can get the job done on superspeedways. Jones believes his could be the breakthrough win that propels this team forward.
“We’ve been putting a lot of work into our Daytona car to get it better. I feel like our superspeedway stuff has been good, we just need to take advantage of it. We’re definitely focused on winning and making our way into the Playoffs. I know we can go do it, I know we can run well there, and I know we can have a shot to win. We just have to execute and hope we’re staying out of trouble and avoid a lot of the chaos and be up there and have a shot.”
Buescher has also been knocking at the door this season, only to have a series of misfortunes cost him. The RFK Racing driver finished 3rd in the 2020 Daytona 500 but he hasn’t finished inside the top-15 here since. He and his teammate/boss share the same outlook tonight.
“This race is going to be chaos no matter how you look at it. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen this scenario play out with so many guys still eligible and all needing a win, so this week will be more about survival than ever. We’re very confident in our superspeedway program and we just hope all the pieces fall our way to get the win and push us into the playoffs.”
Brad has just one win at Daytona (July, 2016) but should still be a factor in this race. Keselowski was one of the fastest cars in the Daytona 500 earlier this year, but his aggression always seems to get the best of him. He has crashed out eight times in his last 11 starts here.
“It goes without saying but this race is going to be wild. I told the team that if I can be one of the last ten cars left on the last restart, we’ll have a shot and that’s about all you can ask for, especially in this type of scenario. We know we have speed and feel really good about our chances, we just need everything to align to make it happen.”
Stenhouse might be another popular pick, but he has not finished inside the top-12 at Daytona in the last nine races here. He always finds his way to the front of these races though, as evidenced by his summer victory here in 2017.
Burton could be a sneaky pick here, as the rookie shined in February before a big crash ended his race. The rookie would love nothing more than to get the Wood Brothers organization their 100th victory – at Daytona of all places. “Having speed and being up front there at the beginning of the year was cool. Flipping isn’t cool, but we’ve got to be aggressive to go try and get up front. That’s the only goal now. At this point, it’s win or go home.”
After failing to get both Richard Childress Racing cars in the playoffs last year, Dillon will have another chance tomorrow night. Winning the Daytona 500 in 2018 was great, but things haven’t gone well for him since. Dillon has six finishes of 12th or worse in his last seven starts here.
“It’s a game of putting yourself in position. I call it high-speed chess because you know at some point in time you’re going to be vulnerable. You hope that someone doesn’t take advantage of that too much and cause a big wreck. It’s one of those things where you are constantly moving and trying to guess the flow of the pack. I think the best place to be is in the front most of the time. I’m going to do my best this time around to put ourselves in position.”
McDowell, another Daytona 500 winner, will have his opportunity to get back in the playoffs. The Front Row Motorsports driver is still kicking himself after a disappointing 6th place finish at the Glen last weekend. While Ty Dillon did finish 4th here in the rain-shortened 2019 race, he has not finished inside the top-ten at Daytona ever since. Both drivers will need some good fortune tonight.
Kevin Harvick’s back-to-back wins this month have provided some sunlight on the Stewart Haas Racing team. Aside from Briscoe’s win early in the season, it had been a rough year for the organization. They still have two cars trying to get into the playoffs in Almirola and Custer.
Almirola announced before the start of the season that this would be his last full-time campaign, but rumors swirled over the last month that he could change his mind. That became a reality yesterday when the team announced that the 38-year old will return to the No. 10 Mustang after signing a multi-year extension.
Although Almirola won this race in 2014, he has finished 14th or worse in four of the last five Daytona races. “You take more chances and you put yourself in positions you wouldn’t typically put yourself in – especially when it comes down to the end of the race. We’re willing to go with extremely high risk because the reward is extremely high. It’s the last opportunity to get in the playoffs.”
It would certainly be fair to categorize Custer as a long-shot tonight. He has never finished inside the top-ten in five career starts at Daytona. “Everybody knows that you have to win to make the playoffs, so everybody without a win is going to do everything they can and they’re going to be aggressive. Daytona gives a lot more players a chance to win, so it’s going to be interesting to see who’s going to be extremely aggressive and who can make it to the end of the race.”
After a promising drive last weekend at Watkins Glen delivered Gilliland a gut punch, the rookie returns to Daytona where he was fast in February. “We were really close to being up front at the end in the Daytona 500. We were in the top-five in the closing laps and a wreck out of our control ended our day. Hopefully, we can be there at the end when it counts. We all know how this goes at Daytona. We just need to be in position, get that push, and hopefully get the win.”
Haley won this race three years ago, and while a win tonight wouldn’t be a shock, it would definitely be out of left field. He did finish 6th in this race last year, and rain could be a factor again tonight. The checkered flag at Daytona awaits, as the 16-driver playoff grid is set in stone.