Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) could be about strategy more so than wild racing early, but a wild ending too

The NASCAR Cup Series will wrap up their 2020 regular season on Saturday night at the World Center of Speed in Daytona. The Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) will mark the 26th and final race of the regular season. With three spots open still for the playoffs, a cutoff race on a superspeedway will surely create drama, right?

Well, it certainly will. But, I think Saturday night’s race will also feature a high speed game of chess with a little poker mixed into it too.

See, Clint Bowyer only needs to finish 34th or better and he’s into the playoffs. But, does he go for stage points to ensure he doesn’t need to worry about a finish? That’s a risk vs. reward type deal for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. You know 34 cars aren’t finishing Saturday night’s race. That’s a fact. So, why wouldn’t Bowyer just ride around in the back, even risk losing the draft if needed, to finish good enough to ensure he’s in the playoffs.

That would be the 14th spot.

You’d have two spots left and really four drivers that can take it, realistically though it’s only three. Matt DiBenedetto is +9 on the playoff bubble in 15th spot. He lost 35 points last weekend in Dover. William Byron holds the 16th and final playoff spot by four points over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Jimmie Johnson. Erik Jones is 50 markers out and would need a lot of help to make the postseason on points.

So, here’s where this gets interesting.

This will be the 147th NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona. We’ve had 65 different race winners so far. Do we see a 66th?

A big one during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2019 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Winning at Daytona is tough. It’s like a lottery. The top 10 winners ever on the 2.5-mile high banked superspeedway are all in the Hall of Fame. There’s a reason for that. But, there’s also this — 10 drivers have picked up their first career Cup wins in the annual summer race at Daytona too including the last two Coke Zero Sugar 400’s at that.

If that trend continues, we could see a wild card driver take a playoff spot away from DiBenedetto, Byron and Johnson.

That’s why DiBenedetto, Byron and Johnson need to focus on points too on Saturday. We know that even if we get an unlikely winner that’s not inside of the playoff grid right now reaching victory lane, you still have one playoff spot available for these three.

Currently, nine points separate the trio. That’s why stage points will be crucial because what if all three wind up in a wreck at some point on Saturday night?

The other factor is, do you risk going towards the front for stage points and risk wrecking? After all, what easier way to make the playoffs than to win? In order to win, you first have to finish. In order to finish, you can’t get caught up in a wreck.

That’s why Saturday night is going to see a lot of strategy plays for those drivers because as we sit here now, five drivers on the entry list that are also 17th or worse in the standings are past Daytona winners.

Johnson has twice in the Daytona 500 (2006, 2013) and once in the ‘400 (2013). Jones, won the 2018 ‘400 while Justin Haley won last year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the 2017 ‘400. Ryan Newman won the 2008 Daytona 500 while Matt Kenseth is a two-time Daytona 500 champion himself (2009, 2012).

Haley isn’t on this entry list but the others are.

How fitting would it be if Johnson won the final regular season race to end over a 100 race winless drought? What about Newman winning in his first Daytona oval start since his frightening last lap crash in February’s Daytona 500 and sealing a playoff spot by virtue of that? Then you have Kenseth coming in after an unfortunate situation with Chip Ganassi Racing in having to fire Kyle Larson for a racial slur and getting a win to steal a postseason berth?

Stenhouse, Haley and Jones are the last three winners of this race. That’s a big storyline.

So, if you’re anyone outside of DiBenedetto, Byron, Johnson and Jones, what gain do you have to race hard early? Wouldn’t it be wise to just go to the back and get out of the way? I mean, for those wildcard drivers, stage points do nothing for you. For the guys already into the postseason, stage points do nothing for you now too.

The wildcard guys like Stenhouse, Newman, Kenseth, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace Jr, Michael McDowell, John Hunter Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece and Daniel Suarez have nothing to gain in the first 140 laps of Saturday’s 160 Lap race. Why get caught up in a crash?

Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch have nothing to gain either. Why wad up a car early? Why risk a crash during a pandemic and causing more chaos back at the shop heading into the playoffs?

So, I sense maybe a tame race for a majority of this, before a wild ending to depths that we’ve never seen. With a playoff on the line, the last 20 laps are going to be wild. That’s when the risk is there for the taking. That’s when everything is on the line.

I mean, think about this, Byron and Johnson could work together, but does either want to push the other to a playoff berth leaving the other out? Their goal is to push DiBenedetto out, but what happens if they’re drafting together and DiBenedetto is still up front? What happens as the laps tick by like that?

Saturday’s race is going to be crazy wild in the end, with strategy at the start and the middle.

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