Daytona decides a season as the NASCAR Playoff field is set on the high banks

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - JULY 07: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, lead the field to the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 07, 2019 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

For a majority of the field, it’s all to play for at Daytona. Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will determine the 16-driver Playoff grid.

And there’s still a spot open. Rules changed this year means any full-time driver can fill that spot, not just those in the top-30 in points like before.

That means there’s a chance to make the postseason – and all the prize money and recognition that comes with it – for drivers throughout the field.

And of those drivers who need a win to get in, five know how to get it done at Daytona. Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, and Erik Jones are all former winners at the track – and Dillon won the July race last year to secure his Playoff berth.

Betting Odds via BetMGM
+1200 – Chase Elliott
+1200 – Denny Hamlin
+1300 – Ryan Blaney
+1300 – Brad Keselowski
+1300 – Joey Logano
+1700 – Kyle Busch
+1700 – Chris Buescher
+1800 – William Byron
+2000 – Bubba Wallace
+2200 – Kyle Larson

The odds might not necessarily favor a new winner, but precedent certainly does. Six active drivers scored their first win at the track, and 23 drivers have done so throughout NASCAR history. And it’s a track that’s difficult to repeat at in the modern era: no active driver has won there more than three times. Instead, Daytona favors variety.

All that’s not good news for Bubba Wallace. The driver who holds the provisional sixteenth and final Playoff spot heading into Daytona has a strong average finish of 13.0 and has run well on superspeedways, scoring his first win at Talladega.

But he’ll have to beat out the rest of the field. That includes Austin Cindric, who has an average finish of 10.5 at Daytona in his young career, better than Wallace’s. He scored his first win in his rookie season at Daytona, in the 500.

“I’ve had success on superspeedways and that definitely comes down to decision making and being able to maximize an opportunity,” Cindric acknowledged. “Track position is important with everything that we do, so you have to get there and earn the spot at the end of the race to be able to make something happen or execute an opportunity.”

“The meat and potatoes of the race is still very important, but from a confidence standpoint I get confidence in my preparation and I would say my preparation tells me that things have changed a lot since the first superspeedway race we did that I won, so I am very open-minded to how things have evolved with this car throughout races,” he added.

Cindric’s plan is to run up front and maximize that track position as he hopes for a repeat and his second career win.

Cindric is firmly in must-win territory, though. The only two drivers who could conceivably beat Bubba Wallace on points are Ty Gibbs and Daniel Suarez, who are 32 and 43 points out respectively.

It’s not likely for either unless Wallace gets caught in a wreck or has major issues, though, with both needing a win just as much as the rest of the field. Daniel Suarez is ready to embrace the challenge.

“The way I personally perform, I love being in these kinds of scenarios,” he said.

“I feel like as a race car driver and as an athlete, you really live for moments like this. You don’t get to experience moments like this all the time. And when you do experience these moments, I feel like that’s really when you get to show what you’re built of,” Suarez added.

Being able to just focus on the win gives clarity, added Ryan Preece. For the drivers in must-win territory, stage points don’t matter.

“You go in knowing that you want to do anything you can to put yourself in position to win and take your team into the Playoffs, but there are going to be a lot of other guys with the same plan,” Preece said.

“You want to win every race, but maybe if we had already done that, we’d go into this one a little more focused on winning a stage, picking up playoff points, or something like that.”

“Daytona is already a tough race to prepare for. Anything can happen and it makes it tough to stick to a specific strategy. We’ve done well there, so I know we are capable, it’s just going to come down to a lot of good luck and no mistakes on our part to even have a shot at being in position at the end. From there, anything can happen,” he added.

Besides the thirteen drivers with a win, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick have also guaranteed a spot on points.

For Harvick, though he has yet to find victory lane in his final season, success comes down to racing smart.

“There are different ways to solve the equation,” he said. “Sometimes we’re going to run fourth, and we have to accept that and be able to say, ‘If we have a fourth-place car, we need to finish fourth.’ On the days when stuff is chaotic and there are cars torn up everywhere and you finish ninth with a 20th-place car, those are really big wins. I’ve done all that. I’ve been on that side of the fence where you’ve had 20th-place cars all year and you have to figure out how to make something out of it.

“They’re going to have the races, regardless, and you still have to show up. You can’t just quit because your cars are slow. So you just have to figure out how to manage that, and also manage it when you have fast cars, medium cars, know what you have that day and get the most out of that day,” Harvick added.

The race isn’t just for the final spot but also for the top spot.

Martin Truex is currently in position to earn the Regular Season Championship and a major Playoff points haul. Denny Hamlin, 39 points back, is the only possible challenger.

It’s a big gap, though, and as long as Truex is able to stay out of trouble he should earn the points.

“I think we’re in a pretty good spot, we just need to be smart and need to do just what we know how to do,” he explained. “We just have to be mindful of the first two stages and see what we need to do in the final stage and that will set our strategy for the rest of the race.”

And Hamlin will get his share as well. Each of the top ten regular-season finishers will get some amount of Playoff points as a bonus to carry into the postseason.

So expect intense racing fueled by Playoff desperation throughout the field. Martin Truex certainly expects that, at least.

“Daytona is a wide-open crapshoot,” he summed it up. “Everyone holds it wide open. You get down to the end of the race and we’ve seen the crashes over and over on the green-white-checkereds.”

“Everyone just holds it wide open and, if they have any momentum at all, they just try to drive through the guy in front of them and it spins him out and crashes him. It’s really just a wild card, it’s kind of crazy.”

Of note, currently in the Playoffs are Martin Truex, Denny Hamlin, William Byron, Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Chris Buescher, Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

In addition to the regular field of contenders, Beard Motorsports will be making another start at Daytona. The team attempted to qualify for the Daytona 500 but failed to make the field. Sunday’s race at Daytona will be their fourth start and fifth entry.

Xfinity Series points leader Austin Hill will be behind the wheel. He’s won four times in that series, including at Daytona. He knows the track, and also knows that it will be different in a summer race.

“With it being hotter outside, the track will be slicker,” Hill explained. “Handling comes into effect a little more, which is what we noticed last year in the Xfinity Series car.”

“So I am expecting the same with the Cup car this weekend. You’re going to have to have a balance of being trimmed out with raw speed and having drivability in your car to where, if you need to make big moves, you can,” he said.

Busch Light Pole Qualifying will take place on Friday evening at 5 p.m. on USA Network.

Xfinity Series standings tighten up as Daytona injects unpredictability

Three races remain before the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs heading into the Wawa 250 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Just three points separate the final points positions, with Riley Herbst in and Parker Kligerman out.

That points Riley Herbst in a difficult position heading into Daytona, trying both to get a win and maximize his points gain.

“It’s a tough situation,” he admitted. “You don’t want to put yourself in a bad situation in points, but you also don’t want to play it too safe and lose out on a chance to win.”

“In order to be there at the end, we have to have a fast car, fast pit stops, and make no mistakes. It’s easier said than done, but I know we can do it,” Herbst added.

Besides Kligerman, the rest of the field is outside looking in and not in points range.

But the other side of the Playoff standings is just as close.

Austin Hill, points leader, saw his advantage decrease to just nine points over John Hunter Nemechek following the road course race at Watkins Glen. Third-place Justin Allgaier is behind by 34 points.

Hill is the defending Daytona winner, having won the February season-opener at the track. Another win on Friday night would make him only the second driver ever to sweep both Daytona races in a season after Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Herbst’s teammate Cole Custer is locked in himself and sits fourth.

“It’s definitely huge to have the weight lifted off your shoulders,” he said. “It can get nerve-racking when you’re on the bubble, or have to focus on points racing. With that being said, we have to make sure that we keep running as hard as we can to try and build up points as a cushion when they reset for the playoffs.”

“You can do that by winning stages and winning races. It’ll help you out so much in the playoffs in case you have a bad race, so it’ll make life a little easier in those situations. We just have to keep at it. You can’t let your guard down or feel too secure because the playoffs reset everything,” Custer added.

Last week’s winner Ty Gibbs will not be present to defend to defend his win. Trevor Bayne will be driving the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

The Xfinity Series will not have practice at Daytona but will instead qualify right away. Qualifying is set for 3 p.m. ET on Friday and the session will air at 4 p.m. on the USA Network.

Truck Series goes back short track racing in the Playoffs

The Craftsman Truck Series Playoffs resume in the Clean Harbors 175 at the Milwaukee Mile Speedway on Sunday (4 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

It’s the second race in the Round of 10 before the postseason field is whittled down to eight.

Ty Majeski won the opening round at Indianapolis Raceway Park in dominating fashion. That earns him a guaranteed berth in the next round.

Milwaukee Mile is the second short track in a row in this round, and it’s a return for the Truck Series to the track for the first time since 2009. Only Playoff contender Matt Crafton has raced there previously.

Crafton is currently in the elimination zone, along with Matt DiBenedetto, by two and three points respectively behind Nick Sanchez.

Christian Eckes, on the other hand, is in strong position, 39 points above the cutline and third in the standings.

“It’s going to be a challenge, for sure,” Eckes admitted of the track.

“Not many people have raced at Milwaukee recently, so there’s not much of a notebook to look at other than some visual similarities to Gateway or Phoenix,” he added.

Qualifying for the Clean Harbors 175 takes place at 11:30 a.m. ET on Sunday on FS2, followed by the race at 4 p.m. ET on FS1.

Racing during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway on July 6, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Coke Zero Sugar 400
The Place: Daytona International Speedway
The Date: Saturday, August 26
The Time: 7 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,778,583
TV: NBC, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 400 miles (160 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 35),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 95), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 160)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Wawa 250 Powered by Coca-Cola
The Place: Daytona International Speedway
The Date: Friday, August 25
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,640,749
TV: USA, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 250 miles (100 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 100)

Next Race: Clean Harbors 175
The Place: Milwaukee Mile Speedway
The Date: Sunday, August 27
The Time: 4 p.m. ET
The Purse: $644,030
TV: FS1, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 177.625 miles (175 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 55),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 110), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 175)

Owen Johnson