DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — 25 races down, one remains in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season. With that said, among the 40 drivers in the field for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN), 36 of them are going for just the win while four others are practically points racing.
Lets start at the top. It’s Kyle Larson vs. Denny Hamlin. 28 points separate the duo for the distinction of being regular season champion and take home 15 additional playoff points that go with it. For Hamlin, these mean more to him than Larson in the sense that it equate out to three race wins. Hamlin, has been shutout of victory lane this year and holding a 30 race winless drought at the moment.
Larson meanwhile, has already accumulated 36 playoff points compared to Hamlin’s five. Plus, if Hamlin is to catch and pass Larson, it’s going to give him some much needed momentum going into the playoffs.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver took over the points lead leaving Daytona the first time in February. He held onto the top spot all the way until leaving Watkins Glen earlier this month. The reason?
He started off 2021 with eight top five finishes in the first nine races. Over the last 16, he’s had just five with no finish being better than fourth. All but one of his eight top fives to begin the year were fourth or better.
Larson was 144 points down on May 9 and now sits 28 points ahead on Aug. 22. The reason for him is due to Larson having six top two results in a six race span between May and into June then having three straight top three results over the last three races entering this weekend.
What has Larson worried is that he’s 0-for-27 in the Cup Series on superspeedway’s. He’s also just 1-for-10 in the Xfinity Series on them too.
Hamlin on the flipside has won three of the last five Daytona’s 500s with his last win being on a superspeedway last Fall in Talladega in fact. With 20 stage points on the line this Saturday night plus points for your finishing position too, there’s still a decent shot that Hamlin can win this regular season title.
“Daytona’s been one of the best tracks for me. I’ve won the 500, and I’d love to win the Coke Zero 400. I’m a Coke driver and I have not yet won that race. We seem to put ourselves in contention each and every year at Daytona, so we always look forward to racing there. And because my playoff spot is clinched, I can go on offense. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
On the bottom of the playoff standings, the fight for the 16th and final spot is a good one between Richard Childress Racing teammates of Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon. 25 points separate the duo entering Saturday night’s race but this is also Daytona and anything can happen.
Reddick has far outperformed Dillon over the last several months of action but Dillon scored 13 stage points last Sunday in Michigan and was in a dead heat with Reddick for that 16th spot. Instead, Dillon crashed with Brad Keselowski on the final of the second stage and would finish 36th as a result. That came after being 31st in Indianapolis.
Reddick, has been 21st and 29th respectively in the same two races which has left the door open. Prior to that, Reddick had seven top 10’s in 11 tries with Dillon having not had a top 10 in the last 10 races including just one in the last 14 overall.
On paper, Reddick has this spot held down but each have scored just one top five all year and Dillon’s came back in February’s Daytona 500. He also won a Duel then too which has some thinking that the final playoff spot could come down to him.
Plus, what makes this awkward is at Daytona now, you rely on the help of your teammates. It’s going to be hard to help each other out if you’re Dillon and Reddick. How can you willingly push Reddick if you’re in Dillon’s shoes?
Reddick says that they really can’t.
The other side is, if they don’t help each other, it opens up the door for someone to steal that spot from them and neither RCR driver is playoff bound as a result.
“It is stressful because it is something that is somewhat out of your hands,” Reddick said. “You can only control what you can. We can’t even really control or predict or even waste the energy predicting how other teams are going to go into Daytona and how they’re going to run.”
Daytona has been known lately to reward fluke winners. From Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s second and last career win in this race in 2017, to Erik Jones’ first career win in 2018, to Justin Haley’s first and only win in 2019 and William Byron’s first win in 2020, the ‘400 could produce a wild winner when it’s all said and done.
Matt DiBenedetto could be it. He’s not ever won a race before but heating up at the right time. Is it too late though? He enters 120 points out, so he needs to win. He’s riding six straight top 11 results on the year including fifth in Indy and sixth in Michigan. What cost him is the stretch of eight races of 18th or worse prior.
The crew chief swap was just what the Wood Brothers and DiBenedetto needed. They since kicked it into gear but as he sits here now entering this weekend, he’s driving arguably the best and most consistent of his Cup career but has no job lined up past Phoenix this November.
The Wood Brothers will replace him with Harrison Burton next season. There’s nothing DiBenedetto can do to save his ride. This is it. As frustrating as it is to him, it’s not like he didn’t see this coming.
He’s in the middle of a three-year deal with the team but it’s a year by year option. The team elected to have him back for this year but also told him last year too that this would be his last. They weren’t picking up his option for 2022 as this was going to be the seat for Austin Cindric to move into. But, when Brad Keselowski decided to leave Team Penske and move to Roush Fenway Racing, the chatter became that Cindric would just move over to Penske instead.
DiBenedetto then had a false sense of security that maybe he’d get retained again after all. The problem was, in the midst of all of this movement, DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Ford team weren’t running like they should have. Did that cost him his ride?
Does he regret not speaking up sooner for a change on top of hit pit box?
You can’t look back too long because both he and the Wood Brothers vowed to end the season on a high note and so far it’s working. A win at Daytona would put him in the postseason for a second straight year and maybe open up more doors for next season as well.
“You are desperate inside, but as far as how you race that race, it’s a more calculated approach, and I think you can look at those races, and you can watch, and you can truly see the people that really study and really put so much effort into those races and are calculated in every decision that you make, and it has shown,” he said ahead of this Saturday night’s race.
He had a chance of winning Talladega in each of the last two years but neither resulted in a win. How much does he go back and scrutinize his end of race moves in those instances to try to learn something new on how to turn those defeats to a win this time around if placed in a similar position?
“I’ve got to go back and be mentally tough and be like, ‘OK, let’s go back and watch,’ even though it’s heartbreaking and really painful to watch anytime you lose a race when you’re leading on the white flag coming off Turn 4,” DiBenedetto said.
Ross Chastain could be another potential sleeper winner. The Florida native won an Xfinity Series race here in 2019 and was seventh in February’s Daytona 500.
“I don’t want to cause a big wreck,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said last Thursday in a media teleconference. “I’ve done that.”
What he’s referring to is when he tried to make a last lap pass in the Xfinity Series race last year on his Kaulig Racing teammate of AJ Allmendinger but instead took them both out.
“I still hate that I made that move on the last lap and I just could have done so much better there and just been a better person about it,” Chastain continued. “And I wasn’t. And I didn’t do that. So yeah, I learned from that, I think.”
“I played a big part in that excitement in the last Daytona cutoff race,” Reddick said. “I think you’ll expect to see drivers that were as desperate as I was in that race to try and get up front and get control of the race and win for their team and all their partners.
“It’s just going to be a matter of trying to have an understanding in the back of your head or have a point that you kind of have within yourself. Like, ‘OK, this is my fun meter. If we can stay within, we’re good.’”
Bubba Wallace is another winless driver who was fifth in this very race last year and had a fast race car in February. Same for Ryan Preece. He was sixth in his Duel to race his way in back in February, finished second in the opening stage of the Daytona 500 and sixth in the race.
Corey LaJoie has a waiver and has three top 10 finishes in his last four Daytona starts. These drivers are winless.
Chris Buescher had one career win but does have five top 10 finishes in his last eight Daytona tries, three of which in the top five. Stenhouse Jr. and Erik Jones are past winners of this race while Ryan Newman is a past Daytona 500 champion.
“I don’t know where my cutoff is, so to speak. I’m usually pretty aggressive with trying to make moves, but I’m also not the most aggressive with trying to block moves.
“That came through my upbringing in racing,” Buescher said of blocking this weekend. ‘If you got blocked, you took care of that person really quickly, and if you blocked, you got sent very quickly as well. … It’s been a little bit tough for me to be able to adapt on throwing the blocks, so that is something I would say is going to have to step up and be more aggressive with.
“I don’t have all the right answers here. I don’t know if I have even the wrong answers.
“I’m just trying to figure out what it is that we need to do to be there and hopefully have a little bit of luck on our side at the same time.”
These drivers want a win and hope the RCR duo overthinks it on Saturday night.
“There’s not a lot of pressure involved [this year],” William Byron said as he was in this place last year and won in Daytona to clinch a playoff spot. “I don’t envy the position of the other guys that are in that position to try to … either they have to win, or they’re right there on the bubble for the points. It’s a tough position to be in.”