Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – The final NASCAR Cup Series Playoff position will be decided at the sport’s most iconic track in what is annually one of the most thrilling and unpredictable races.
That’s the scene for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
This regular season finale will formally decide the Regular Season Champion, currently Martin Truex Jr. holds a 39-point advantage on his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, and conversely settle the other end of the Playoff standings as well. 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace is hoping to earn his first ever Playoff-berth and holds a 32-point advantage over Joe Gibbs Racing’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ty Gibbs for the final Playoff transfer position.
The following drivers have already secured a place in the 2023 Playoffs with a victory: Truex, Hamlin, Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron (who boasts a series-best five wins), the 2021 series champion Kyle Larson, two-time series champion, Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch, RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, JGR’s Christopher Bell, Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick, two-time and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, Team Penske’s Joey Logano, Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Clinching a Playoff position already based on points are 2012 season champion and RFK Racing owner/driver Brad Keselowski and 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who will be retiring at the end of the season.
And while Wallace currently sits in that final points position, a new season winner on the 2.5-mile Daytona high banks could claim that pivotal position as well, with 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott and former Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric still hoping for a clutch win. Past Daytona summer race winners Justin Haley, Aric Almirola, Erik Jones and defending Coke Zero Sugar 400 champion Austin Dillon are also primed to hoist another Daytona summer trophy and take that final Playoff spot.
Among those with more than four Daytona starts, Wallace – who has three runner-up showings in Daytona races – boasts the best average finish (13.0). Dillon, the 2018 Daytona 500 winner, averages a 15.6 place finish, followed by Haley (17.1), Almirola (20.2) and Jones (22.8). Cindric has a 10.5-average finish in four starts at the track.
Beyond Gibbs in the standings is Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez, only 43 points behind Wallace. Gibbs’ best finish at Daytona (13th) came last year in this race. Suarez’ best work was seventh place, just this February.
“We know what we have to do and that’s win,” said Suarez, driver of the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet. “It’s pretty simple and we plan to give it our best shot.”
There are 14 former NASCAR Cup Series Daytona race winners entered this week with Hamlin’s three Daytona 500 wins, most in the field. Stenhouse, Dillon and Harvick have each won a Daytona 500 and Coke Zero Sugar 400.
Blaney, Byron, Haley, Jones, Keselowski, Almirola and Busch have all won summer races at Daytona. Among those, Byron, Haley, Jones and Almirola all scored their career first NASCAR Cup Series victories in the Daytona summer race. No driver on Saturday’s grid has won multiple summer races.
And the last back-to-back summer Daytona winner was Tony Stewart in 2005-06.
“Everybody’s in a must-win situation,” said Wallace, the driver of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota.
“When the last race is Daytona and we’ve seen surprise winners, no one is safe until the race is over with,” he added. “We’re hoping we can do everything right, continue to get stage points and if there is a new winner, it’s the 23-car. Everybody’s fighting for the same real estate.
“If we could lock ourselves in and do a good job it would be a massive pat on the back to everybody involved in this program and 23XI showing their commitment to the sport and our commitment we have to deliver back to the team for all the opportunities given to us,” he added. “You never want to take any of this for granted.”
Competition begins Friday evening with Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 5 p.m. on the USA Network.
Three races to go in the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular season
The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to action at Daytona’s big track following back-to-back weeks of high-drama road course style racing. The Wawa 250 Powered by Coca-Cola takes center stage at the Daytona International Speedway on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
There are still three races remaining to set the 12-driver 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff field – but much to the pleasure of race fans, these drivers have been competing as if each race was a cut-off event.
Sam Mayer claimed last week’s win at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road course with a full-contact overtime re-start knocking the day’s most dominant driver and defending series champion Ty Gibbs from the lead. Mayer took the lead position from Gibbs after the contact and held off Sheldon Creed to claim his second career victory in the series in only the last four races.
It’s worth noting, Gibbs, a fulltime Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender in the NASCAR Cup Series, will not be back in the Xfinity Series this week at Daytona, rather in his stead will be 2011 Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, driving the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Last week’s race was as impactful for the top of the championship standings as it was for those drivers competing for the last Playoff position. Austin Hill – who won the series’ February season-opener at Daytona – holds a slim nine-point lead over John Hunter Nemechek for the regular season title and all-important 15-point Playoff bonus. Both drivers had action-packed days on the Watkins Glen road course with Hill being collected in the final restart and finishing 14th and Nemechek taking a hard-earned sixth-place finish.
Jeremy Clements is the defending summertime race winner at Daytona; however, Hill has won two of the last three Xfinity Series events there – both February races in 2022 and 2023. They are the only two current fulltime drivers with a past Daytona trophy. NASCAR Cup Series regular Justin Haley – who has a pair of Daytona Xfinity Series wins – is the only other former winner who will be competing in Friday night’s race.
Should Hill, driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, win Friday night he would be only the second driver ever to sweep both Daytona races in a season. NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. is currently the only one to accomplish the feat (2003).
Eight drivers have already clinched a position in the Playoffs with victories, including Nemechek – who boasts a series best four wins – plus Hill, Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer, Mayer, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith and Jeb Burton.
Josh Berry, Creed, 2021 series champion Daniel Hemric and Riley Herbst are currently inside the Playoff points cutoff. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver Herbst, however, holds only a slim three-point advantage over Big Machine Racing’s Parker Kligerman. Herbst was sixth in the Daytona season-opener, Kligerman was 23rd.
This marks a rare race weekend when the series will not have practice but 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.