Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 could have a dangerous, yet wild ending

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — This is exactly what NASCAR wanted. A playoff deciding race on a superspeedway where multiple drivers need to win in order to place themselves into the upcoming postseason. But, in saying that, I wonder on how much this will contribute to the danger factor for the ending of Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN).

You have 40 cars in the field this weekend but only four of them are points racing. The other 36 have one goal in mind – to win. The remaining four are battling for a regular season championship (Kyle Larson vs. Denny Hamlin) and the 16th and final playoff spot (Tyler Reddick vs. Austin Dillon) in hopes of no one behind them winning.

Those four have to go for stage points when for the other 36, those same points available at the end of the two stages don’t matter.

So, for the 36 going for the win, why not just play it conservative and run around the top for most of the race and ensure that you have punters chance of winning in the end?

For the 13 drivers already locked into the postseason, it doesn’t matter what happens. For the 13 drivers not named Reddick or Dillon or locked into the playoffs but between 18th and 30th in points, you HAVE to win Saturday night’s race in order to get in. For those 31st on back, a win would go a long way for them too in securing future work.

That’s why I somewhat fear for the ending. More than likely, you’re going to have a rather large lead pack in the end with drivers that aren’t used to running up front at the end, racing for a win. I mean, there’s a reason that these drivers are in this position that they’re in. They’ve not won this year and have also not been running up front a whole heck of a lot anyways.

So, when the intensity ramps up and drivers that aren’t used to be running up front are and battling for their playoff lives at the end, that’s when mistakes get made.

How do you race drivers like that compared to someone more established and knows where victory lane actually is at?

The drivers racing to get into the playoffs have to get desperate and place themselves and their cars in positions that maybe aren’t there. I mean, you HAVE to. You can’t just line up and ride in third on back and say, “oh well.”

You HAVE to go for it. By doing so, more mistakes happen which creates bigger crashes. I mean if you’ve not yet won a race this year and you’re in second or third late in the race and needing a win, don’t you push harder and go places no one would dare just to try?

If you’re in a similar position and leading, you have block. But, how far do you go?

“You’ve got to be really calculated in what you do and not so much desperate,” Matt DiBenedtto said. “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.”

Chris Buescher agreed.

“I don’t know where my cutoff is, so to speak,” Buescher said. “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. 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.”

DiBenedetto notes that you have to look back, as painful as it may be, at the past and see how others did and even yourself in those end of race situations. He had a chance to win at Talladega back in late April and if he would have done so, he wouldn’t be in this must win position like he’s in right now.

“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.

Both Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick have learned from past experiences on what not to do they say.

“I don’t want to cause a big wreck,” Chastain said. “I’ve done that. I’m trying to learn from it. I used to get really freaked out and worried and stressed about superspeedway races, but I’ve just realized over my 10 years in the sport, we’re all going to crash.

“We’re all going to get backward in the grass at 200 mph at some point. You make it. [Or] go home. No desperation. I just want to win and compete in this series. So whatever happens there happens.”

Reddick echoed that sentiment.

“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.’”

That’s why I wonder how dangerous Saturday’s ending will be. While I get this is what fans and NASCAR wants, I also caution that if someone new does win, it’s essentially the same as an NFL team that’s 3-12 or even 5-10 going into the final regular season game and the NFL says that go ahead and throw a hail mary and I know you’ve had a bad season but if you convert the hail mary, I’ll put you into the playoffs.

Is that fair?

That’s where we’re at though. If 25 races are in the books and you’ve not won a race this year or looked like a playoff team, why would you magically be one now? It takes a superspeedway to help get you in but is that fair to the others?

That’s why this gets dangerous. The last four ‘400 race winners have won either their first or second career races here.

We’ve seen some wild last lap crashes lately with Ryan Newman’s at the end of the Daytona 500 last year and the Team Penske sparked melee at the end of this year’s. We’ve seen a new alteration to the racing package too, so hopefully the changes works.

That in turn though could create more blocking. NASCAR adjusted the size of the holes of the tapered spacer (from 57/64ths of an inch to 53/64ths of an inch), which will reduce the cars of about 60 horsepower (from 510 to 450) and by some accounts 7-10 mph. There also will be wicker bill on the rear spoiler too.

“It’s entirely unknown,” Reddick said. “I can’t really say what it’s going to drive like. I think we’ve seen, in years past with previous generation cars, the draft being not as chaotic or unpredictable. But where we were, runs would kind of appear out of nowhere and once they would develop, they were very large runs and you could take them really far; farther than when I ran Xfinity or the Truck Series. The draft at times was not the same. There’s really nothing to go off of, I’d say.”

The hope is by having less speed and not as big of runs from behind which in turn could amp up the blocking. Especially if those up front need to win.

“The runs will probably be not as big, not as quick,” he said. “So, on one hand, that’s nice. It’s a little safer and a little easier for us to race hard and maybe not make as many mistakes trying to block runs at the last minute. 

“With that being said, I think it kind of goes back to some of the races that we’ve had where I feel like you are able to, once you get out front, you can kind of control the race a little bit better and you don’t have those big runs coming.

“So, we’ll just have to see it play out and use the first two stages to figure it out.”

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