As the NASCAR Cup Series prepares for the regular season-ending Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, many drivers will have one last chance to book their tickets to the playoffs. Thirteen of the sixteen spots have already been secured, leaving just three up for grabs with names like Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, and Jimmie Johnson left to battle it out with each other.
The unpredictability of Daytona as a superspeedway will only add to the drama. After last Sunday’s Dover race, Johnson described his playoff hunt as being “in luck’s hands or in fate’s hands down in Daytona at the plate rate.”
Bowyer, who starts fourteenth on Saturday, is the safest of the non-secured drivers. Currently in his fourth season with Stewart-Haas Racing (the only SHR driver who has yet to clinch), he holds the fourteenth playoff spot with a 57-point cushion over the sixteenth-place cutoff line. Over the first twenty-five races, he had seven top-ten finishes and a runner-up finish in May’s Bristol event. With his gap, he is expected to clinch his third straight playoff-qualifying campaign without much trouble. Although he finished sixth in February’s Daytona 500, he only has two more top tens in his last nine starts at the superspeedway.
Fellow Ford driver DiBenedetto, in his first year with Wood Brothers Racing and seeking his maiden playoff appearance, starts fifteenth. Although his seven top tens tie his career best in 2019, a streak of finishes outside the range have left in him a dangerous position with just nine points above the cutoff. DiBenedetto has enjoyed mild success at Daytona with three top tens and leading the most laps in the 2019 Daytona 500.
“I am going to sit and hope and pray all week that we can just come out of there clean and make the playoffs,” DiBenedetto stated.
At the cutoff are a pair of Hendrick Motorsports team-mates in Byron and Johnson. Their fellow Hendrick drivers Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman have long locked themselves into the playoffs with victories.
Byron, looking to make the postseason for the first time in his three-year Cup career, starts sixth and holds just a four-point advantage over Johnson for the sixteenth and final playoff slot. The youngest driver in the HMS stable has dealt with tepid results in 2020, failing to record a top-five finish before finally doing so with a fourth in Sunday’s race at Dover. Byron finished last in the 2020 Daytona 500 due to a crash, but scored a second in the previous year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.
Finishing ahead of Byron by one spot on Sunday was Johnson. 2020 has been an unlucky final season for the seven-time champion, who missed Indianapolis in July with COVID-19 and struggled with inconsistent results throughout. However, since the switch from a black to white Ally paint scheme prior to the Daytona road course event, he is riding a three-race top ten streak. The two-time Daytona 500 winner finished third in the 2019 400. Johnson will start seventh in his final bid for a record-breaking eighth title; he had fallen short of the playoffs in 2019, the first season since the postseason’s introduction without the #48 in the hunt.
“It’s going to be a really interesting race in Daytona from that respect [battling with his team-mate for the final playoff position],” Johnson said after Dover. “But at the same time, it’s still Daytona, and in my opinion, the Big One all the wrecks that can happen is really going to determine who makes it into the playoffs.”
In the Hunt
Jones, the 2018 400 winner, is in his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing. He has just eight top tens so far, compared to when he had fourteen in the 2019 regular season, with a best finish of third in the Pocono 350. Starting twentieth in Saturday’s race, he is 50 points below the cutoff and has not scored a top ten since Kansas in July.
Although Kentucky winner Cole Custer will automatically secure Rookie of the Year if Reddick fails to make the playoffs, many argue the latter has enjoyed the better début season. In the traditional points system, Reddick is ahead of Custer by two positions and outscores him in top tens (seven to six). However, the reigning Xfinity Series champion Reddick has been quiet since his second-place finish at Texas as part of a Richard Childress Racing 1–2: he only has one top ten (tenth at Loudon) in the last seven races. Reddick is 69 points back and will start eighteenth; he finished twenty-eighth in the 500 after a wreck, but has won at Daytona at the Xfinity level and started on the pole in his two latest second-tier starts there.
Bell, set to take over Jones’ ride at JGR in 2021, has five top tens so far in his rookie year, but has not cracked that range since Kentucky in July. He finished twenty-first in the 500, but has top tens in all but one Xfinity Daytona races. The Oklahoman starts twenty-third and is 176 points back, meaning a win will be necessary.
Drivers who are twenty-first to thirtieth in points all require a victory on Saturday if they wish to qualify for the playoffs. From twenty-first to -fifth are Chris Buescher (starts seventeenth), who made the 2016 postseason with a fog-shortened win at Pocono; Bubba Wallace (twenty-first), who has never made the playoffs but is enjoying a significantly improved season from his first two at the premier level; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (thirty-first), a former winner of the 400 in 2017; Michael McDowell (twenty-sixth), enjoying his best statistical season to date; and Ryan Newman (twenty-second), running his first race on the Daytona oval since his top ten and terrifying wreck in the 500.
Making up the bottom half of the top thirty are John Hunter Nemechek (twenty-fourth), the highest-finishing rookie in the 500; Ty Dillon (twenty-ninth), who has just one top ten in 2020 but such finishes in the last two summer Daytona races; Matt Kenseth (nineteenth), two-time 500 winner set for his first Daytona oval event since 2017; Corey LaJoie (twenty-fifth), who was involved in Newman’s wreck but scored a top ten; and Ryan Preece (twenty-eighth), still seeking his first top ten of the year.
Daniel Suárez, who is thirty-first in points, can also clinch if he wins but will require help to enter the top thirty in the standings.