Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Drama, intrigue and action have perpetually been a part of NASCAR Cup Series races at the sport’s crown jewel, Daytona International Speedway.
This weekend, the next chapter of the thrilling Daytona storyline will formally set the 2022 16-driver Playoff field.
The Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will complete the Playoffs standings. With the news on Thursday that Kansas race winner Kurt Busch will not participate in the Playoffs while continuing to recover from injuries in an accident at Pocono, Pa. in July – that now leaves two Playoff driver positions to be decided Saturday night.
The two highest ranked drivers still without a victory this season are Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. Blaney, who just announced a contract renewal with the championship organization last week, holds a 25-point advantage on Truex.
If one of the 14 drivers (excluding Busch) already with a victory should win Saturday, then both Blaney and Truex would advance to the Playoffs. Should a new winner hoist a trophy Saturday night, then the highest ranked among Blaney and Truex would take the final Playoff position.
Blaney – who is the defending winner of this race – certainly carries a more optimistic outlook if based solely on past performance at Daytona. The 28-year-old driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford had a pair of runner-up finishes in the 2017 and 2020 Daytona 500 and in 2018, led 118 of the 207 laps in the Daytona 500 only to finish seventh. In all he’s led 191 laps in 14 starts.
Truex, 42, has had some promising runs at Daytona, including a runner-up finish in the 2018 400-miler and in the 2016 Daytona 500. However, that represents two of his three career top fives in 34 race starts. He’s had only one top-10 finish in the last seven races there – finishing fourth in the summer of 2020.
Both drivers struggled a bit on the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course last weekend – Blaney finishing 24th and Truex finishing 23rd. Blaney has only two top-10 finishes in the last five races of the season. His best finish of 2022 is a third-place at Nashville. Truex, has three top-10s in the last five races. His best showing of the season is fourth-place – at both Richmond, Va., and New Hampshire.
“Daytona is interesting,” the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Truex said. “It hasn’t been one of my better tracks, but I really enjoy going there. In the Daytona 500 this year, we had a really strong car and led laps, won the first two stages and were feeling good about things. Then, we had an issue on pit road and had to go to the back and we were swept up in a crash.
“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. That’s really the strategy; the only strategy is to try and stay up front. 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. It’d be quite a story.”
There are 16 active former Daytona race winners entered this weekend. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin’s three Daytona 500 wins make him the winningest among those. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick is the only other active driver with multiple Daytona wins (2007 Daytona 500 and 2010 summer race).
There have been six new winners in the last six Daytona races, including Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Cindric who claimed the Daytona 500 trophy this February. The last 12 summer 400-milers have been won by different drivers. Nine of those are still active, including Harvick, Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Jones, Justin Haley, William Byron and Blaney.
Bubba Wallace, driver of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota has been the runner-up at Daytona in the past two races – finishing second to Blaney in a race that ended under caution last summer and runner-up to Cindric by a slight 0.036-second in this year’s Daytona 500.
Wallace, who still needs to earn a victory to advance into the Playoffs, is having a strong summer. He had a career best string of four top-10 finishes from New Hampshire to Michigan – including a second-place finish at Michigan after winning the pole position.
Daytona has been a strong point in his young resume where three of his four career top-five finishes there have been runner-up showings.
Another favorite this weekend is Chase Elliott, who formally wrapped up his first Regular Season Championship during last week’s race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., The sport’s “Most Popular Driver” boasts a series-best four wins this season, but he is still looking for his first career Daytona victory.
“I think that it’s just a balance that you really have to try to find and it’s one that I can’t say that I’ve really found quite as good as those guys (Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin),” Elliott said. “You’ve got to have a knack for it. 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 PREPARES FOR SOME FRIDAY NIGHT FUN AT DAYTONA
With four races remaining to set the 12-driver 2022 Playoff field, the NASCAR Xfinity Series shows up at Daytona International Raceway for Friday night’s Wawa 250 powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) expecting a dramatic chapter in the 2022 championship story.
Two-time defending race winner Justin Haley will be making his first Xfinity Series start of 2022 in a fourth Kaulig Racing Chevrolet this week. His presence as a race favorite will certainly step up the intensity in a field still hotly contesting that regular season championship.
Going to Daytona, three-time race winner A.J. Allmendinger now carries a hefty 61-point lead on rookie, five-race winner Ty Gibbs, who will do double duty – also driving Kurt Busch’s No. 45 Toyota in Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.
The duo atop the points finished runner-up (Allmendinger) and 27th (Gibbs) at Watkins Glen, N.Y. last week, but neither of them has won on the 2.5-mile Daytona oval. Allmendinger was runner-up in the last two Daytona races, finishing a slight .023-seconds behind Haley in this race last year.
Three are four former winners entered this weekend – Haley, JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson (2020, Spring) and the most recent winner Austin Hill, who took the trophy in the February season-opener. Joe Nemechek, who won this race in 1998 and 2002 will be teaming with his son, John Hunter Nemechek in a pair of Chevrolets fielded by Sam Hunt Racing.
Former NASCAR Cup Series Daytona race winner Ricky Stenhouse will be competing in the No. 48 Big Machine Racing Chevrolet in a weekend double.
There is no denying the intensifying competition in the series. The top six drivers in the standings are all multi-time race winners. Beyond Gibbs’ five victories, Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson all boast three wins. Josh Berry and the most recent Daytona winner Hill have a pair of wins and Brandon Jones has one trophy.
Sam Mayer, Riley Herbst, 2021 Xfinity Series champion Daniel Hemric, Landon Cassill and Ryan Sieg are currently safely inside the Playoff cutoff.
Currently Sieg holds a 39-point advantage on Sheldon Creed for the that final transfer position. Sieg has three top-five finishes at Daytona including third-place showings in 2013 and 2016. Creed, the 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, finished sixth this February in only his second NASCAR Xfinity Series start at the track. He has two top-10 finishes in three Truck Series starts at Daytona.
The Xfinity Series qualifying at Daytona is set for 3:05 p.m. ET on Friday and will be televised on USA Network. There are 43 drivers vying for 38 starting positions.