Daytona is the last shot for the Playoffs under the lights

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 20: A general view of racing as the sun sets during the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Daytona International Speedway is home to the final round of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, meaning it’s the last chance for drivers to punch their tickets to the Playoffs. The Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will formally set the sixteen-driver field.

However, the biggest shakeup to the field comes from a file. Toyota announced on Thursday that it is withdrawing the medical waiver to allow Kurt Busch to compete in the Playoffs after being sidelined for concussion protocol since Pocono in June. That frees up two spots, with the remaining fourteen winners locked in.

Any new winner in the top thirty in points would automatically qualify for the Playoffs, leaving Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex to fight for one guaranteed points position.

Blaney holds a 25-point advantage over Truex, and Blaney has a much better record at Daytona. He’s led 191 laps in his fourteen starts at the track and finished runner-up twice. Truex has also finished second twice, but not recently: in the last seven races at Daytona, he’s only finished in the top ten once.

Daytona is interesting,” Truex said. “It hasn’t been one of my better tracks, but I really enjoy going there. 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.”

Precedent would say Truex needs to be looking for a win, too. The last six Daytona races have all been won by new winners, and the last dozen summer races at Daytona were won by twelve different drivers.

However, that doesn’t mean there will be a new winner, and two-time champion Kyle Busch acknowledged that some drivers tend to find victory lane more often than others at superspeedways.

“You’ve got to be good, but there’s still a lot of luck involved,” Busch added. “You’ve got to be out front. When your cars are fast, you need to do a good job, you know how to lead it, get yourself through traffic, you’ll be out front a lot of the time. So hard to hold those fast cars back, if you will. They do a good job of being able to predict the lines and how they build the inertia and everything behind them.”

Indeed, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano have each recorded seven, five, and four superspeedway wins throughout their careers, though Hamlin is the most successful at Daytona. Hamlin’s three wins lead Kevin Harvick with two among active drivers.

Harvick believes that “It’s best to stay aggressive and try to stay up front” at tracks like Daytona, because “you have to be aggressive just for the fact that if you’re not aggressive, it always seems like you’re not going to be where you need to be. When you wait for something else to happen, that’s usually when you get in trouble because it’s usually someone else’s mess.”

One favorite out of the drivers who’ve already won is Chase Elliott. He clinched the regular season championship at Watkins Glen, giving him momentum going into the Playoffs. While he’s won four times this season, he’s never won at Daytona.

“You’ve got to have a knack for it,” Elliott said of his experiences on the tracks. “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.”

Xfinity Series welcomes big names back at Daytona

The Xfinity Series has four more races before the Playoff field is set heading into the Wawa 250 powered by Coca-Cola on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but it’s a popular event already. 43 entrants will be vying for 38 spots in a tense and televised qualifying (3:05 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Special entries for the race include two-time defending winner Justin Haley, making his first Xfinity Series start with Kaulig Racing in the race he dominated before moving up to the team’s Cup Series program.

A fellow Daytona winner and Cup regular Ricky Stenhouse will also be making a special start at Daytona.

The biggest name making his return, though, is Joe Nemechek. He won this race in 1998 and 2002, and will be joining his son John Hunter as a teammate with Sam Hunt Racing.

“This is a really cool deal, excited to have Joe: he’s a guy that I grew up watching and admiring and to be his car owner is a little bit surreal but it’s really special,” team owner Sam Hunt said.

As for series regulars, AJ Allmendinger has a 61-point advantage over second-place Ty Gibbs in the standings. Gibbs will also be racing in the Cup event to fill in for Kurt Busch.

While neither of the top two in the standings have found victory lane on the Daytona oval, Allmendinger has come the closest, finishing runner-up in the last two Daytona races, including following Haley home last year.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 19: Brett Moffitt, driver of the #02 Hometown Lenders Chevrolet, Brandon Jones, driver of the #19 Menards/Swiffer Toyota, Jade Buford, driver of the #48 Big Machine Spiked Coolers Chevrolet, Riley Herbst, driver of the #98 Monster Energy Ford, Myatt Snider, driver of the #31 TaxSlayer Chevrolet, Sheldon Creed, driver of the #2 Whelen Chevrolet, and Sam Mayer, driver of the #1 Accelerate Pro Talent Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Coke Zero Sugar 400
The Place: Daytona International Speedway
The Date: Saturday, August 27
The Time: 7 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,312,719
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 26
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,756,567
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)

Owen Johnson