The NASCAR Cup Series regular season came to a close with Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Despite the superspeedway’s formidable reputation and his playoff hopes on the line, William Byron stepped up to the plate and delivered for his first career Cup victory.
Newly-minted regular season champion Kevin Harvick started on the pole ahead of Martin Truex Jr., while Austin Dillon (failed inspection twice) and Clint Bowyer (unapproved adjustments) were sent to the rear.
Entering Daytona, thirteen drivers had locked up spots in the sixteen-member playoff grid, leaving drivers like Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto to fend for themselves to take the remaining three. Before the green flag, Bowyer had all but secured a spot as he held a 57-point advantage over the cutoff, while DiBenedetto was just nine points ahead. Hendrick Motorsports team-mates Byron and Jimmie Johnson were on opposite sides of the border, while those behind Johnson needed a win to qualify.
Truex led the opening lap before Harvick, receiving a push from Byron on the outside, took the position on lap five. J.J. Yeley exited the race on lap six for engine problems.
A piece of trash caught onto Harvick’s grille, forcing him to drop back and draft with fellow Ford Ryan Newman to remove it. The competition caution came out on lap 21.
Hendrick’s Byron and Alex Bowman led the field to the restart on lap 25. The former led five laps before Erik Jones took the lead, though the Hendrick duo responded four laps later with Tyler Reddick supporting them. Logano eventually claimed the position on the outside with Team Penske team-mate Ryan Blaney in tow.
The outside line pulled ahead by a wide margin before Reddick and the inside, aided by Johnson and their fellow Chevrolets, tried to catch up with less than ten laps to go. Reddick briefly moved up to second before losing momentum.
On the final lap, Logano switched to the inside to block a charging Reddick. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin was swamped by two rows of cars as he was caught in the middle lane.
Logano successfully kept the field at bay to take the stage win. Behind were Jones, Reddick, Blaney, Johnson, Christopher Bell, Byron, Michael McDowell, Hamlin, and Busch.
Bowyer clinched the fourteenth playoff slot at stage’s end. With their finishes, Johnson and Byron were tied in the standings and leapfrogged DiBenedetto for the last two spots.
Between stages, Hamlin was penalised for not staying in the outside line as he entered pit road. Various other drivers returned to the pits to add more fuel, a strategy that would ultimately play a major role in Stage #2 as mileage became the prime concern.
Bell and Jones paced the field to the green. On lap 66, the Chevrolet drivers led by Johnson pitted to add fuel, while Busch took the lead but also needed to conserve. Bubba Wallace fell off the pace with a fuel-related problem before hooking up with the draft and cracking the top five by lap 70.
On lap 72, an unlikely group of leaders pulled ahead with Daniel Suárez leading Ty Dillon, Wallace, and Corey LaJoie as the group had not pitted. With gas on the field’s minds, the lead pack ran over twenty seconds ahead, with Johnson leading the back pack.
Wallace and Dillon pitted on lap 89; during his stop, Brendan Gaughan suffered a speeding penalty, followed by a second for speeding again when he served the pass-through. Logano took the lead with Blaney drafting three laps later. On lap 94, DiBenedetto committed to the inside with the hope of a drafting partner joining him, to no avail; he lost a position before rejoining the outside after a single lap.
Logano ran on the outside with Truex pushing, while his Penske allies Blaney and Keselowski led the inside. Bowyer and Johnson worked together, a plan that nearly backfired when the contact from the draft nearly turned Bowyer, before the former caught up to Logano. However, Bowyer could not catch the leader.
Truex, Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Johnson, Keselowski, DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Blaney, and Bell also scored stage points. In the cutoff battle, DiBenedetto and Johnson held the final spots with just five points between the former and Byron on the outside.
The first two stages were especially clean, with Racing-Reference’s nascarman noting it was the first time that the 400 ran incident-free through the first 100 laps since 1999.
The final stage began on lap 106 with Logano and Truex on the front row, the latter holding the lead after the former got behind him to draft. The two worked together until Logano hooked with Bowyer to pull ahead on lap 112, starting a battle between the two Fords and Truex with his Joe Gibbs Racing partner Kyle Busch. Busch took the lead on lap 119.
On lap 125, Chase Elliott led a contingent of Chevrolets to pit road for fuel-only stops. The Toyotas followed suit a lap later, with the Fords finally doing so on lap 132. Upon the cycle’s completion, Busch was back in front.
James Davison wrecked on lap 143 for the first race-related caution of the night. At the time of the pause, Byron had a twelve-point advantage over the cutoff, while DiBenedetto was hanging on by five.
A strong restart with 13 laps to go propelled Busch ahead of Hamlin. Behind them, Johnson and DiBenedetto fought for position as the field separated into three lines. On the inside, Kurt Busch joined his brother at the front, briefly leading a lap before Kyle cleared him.
As Kyle pulled away, Reddick caught up to him and made his move with nine laps remaining. Although the rookie cleared the champion, he threw a block on the high line in turn three that forced Busch into the wall, stacking up Jones and many others to trigger a massive wreck. Both Busch brothers, Austin Dillon, McDowell, Stenhouse, Newman, and Ryan Preece were also collected, while the trio of bubble drivers escaped without damage.
A red flag was called to clean up the track.
“8 car obviously just ran out of talent,” Newman said about Reddick in an interview with NBC after being released from the infield care center. “Seems like you can win a couple of Xfinity championships and still stick your head where the Sun don’t shine[.]”
“Why not try to make up for a season filled with mistakes with YET ANOTHER MISTAKE,” Reddick tweeted later in the night.
Reddick and Hamlin comprised the front row as the race resumed with five laps left. Aided by Logano, Hamlin cleared Reddick on the outside, but the Reddick/Chris Buescher duo stayed in range. Bowyer eventually joined the picture, as did Matt Kenseth as the grid split into three-wide racing.
After two laps under green, Logano slung to first ahead of Hamlin while Wallace made his own move on the outside to catch the leader. As they prepared to exit the tri-oval, Logano’s rear was clipped by Hamlin, causing him to slam into Wallace. The two parted, which Byron capitalised on to squeeze by, but Logano was eventually turned with DiBenedetto on his rear bumper and claimed Kenseth. A sideways Kenseth flew up into Johnson. Harvick, Suárez, Bell, and Cole Custer were also involved as the race switched to red flag conditions again.
Although Johnson’s crew was able to apply enough repairs to keep him in the race, the seven-time champion’s playoff hopes were effectively over in his final season.
“I really felt like we had a way to transfer to win or we’ll point our way in the way it went the first two stages,” Johnson said after the race. “And things just got ugly down in turn one. Unfortunate, but that’s plate racing.”
Hamlin, Byron, and DiBenedetto were the top three as overtime began. Although Hamlin and DiBenedetto drew first blood at the green, Byron received a push from Bowyer to go ahead.
Bell and Truex joined the fight exiting turn two, while Bowyer hit the turn two wall though the race stayed green. Truex and Byron battled for the lead as they came to the white flag.
Multiple wrecks took place after the white flag with Harvick brushing the wall in turn two, while Corey LaJoie was turned on the backstretch and hit the wall. Ty Dillon and Aric Almirola wrecked together in turn three, igniting the former’s car.
Nevertheless, the race stayed green as Byron pulled away and team-mate Elliott moved up to second to secure an HMS 1–2 finish and Byron’s first career Cup victory after ninety-eight starts. It is the #24 car’s first victory since Jeff Gordon‘s ninety-three during his Hall of Fame career, while Byron’s crew chief Chad Knaus scores his first win since his eighty-three victories working with Johnson.
“I have confidence in Chad and the guys that we could get four tyres and make the most of it,” Byron stated. “Just extremely blessed and this is incredible. It’s been a hard couple of years in the Cup Series and trying to get my first win and try to gel with this team. These guys did an awesome job today and got us in the playoffs and it’s amazing.”
DiBenedetto finished twelfth but secured a spot in his first playoffs, edging out Johnson by six points.
“Definitely disappointed to not be in the playoffs,” Johnson commented. “That was the number one goal to start the year. But I look back at disqualification at Charlotte and then missing the Brickyard 400 with the COVID-19 positive. We only missed it by six points. […]
“We did all that we could this year. I am so thankful for Hendrick Motorsports and the career that I’ve had there and the relationship with Ally and their continued support with this race team. Cliff Daniels and these guys on my team that pour their guts out for me. There’s ten races left, ten trophies to go chase, and we’ll have to focus our efforts there.”
DiBenedetto’s team Wood Brothers Racing tweeted after Johnson’s interview, “It’s strange too how much we hoped this would work out, now feeling bad for Jimmie. And truly, right now I feel bad for Jimmie”.
The playoffs will begin at Darlington Raceway next Sunday. On Twitter, Johnson posted, “I’m down but not out. Bring on Darlington!”