NASCAR Pre-Race Media: Top 5 burning questions for Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

Can Anyone New Bump Their Way Back Into The Playoffs?

The time is here. The regular season of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule will wrap up for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN). To have a cut off race at the Daytona International Speedway is going to cause a lot of fireworks even with the race moving off the Fourth of July race weekend for just the third time ever. The other came in the wildfires in 1998 and the move to this weekend last year.

Still, we have 15 drivers that have clinched a spot to the postseason with just one more spot available for the taking under the lights at the World Center of Racing.

The main question for this weekend is, will anyone outside the top 16 in the playoff standings bump their ways back in?

Tyler Reddick leads Austin Dillon by 25 points for that final spot. Everyone else needs to win.

Since the ‘Win and Your In’ format to the Playoffs was initiated in 2017, Erik Jones’ 2018 summer race win and William Byron’s last year are the only summer race at Daytona to catapult a driver into the postseason – the other three winners were either not eligible for the Playoffs due to not competing for a championship in the series (Haley in 2019) or the drivers had already previously won in the same season (Keselowski in 2016 and Stenhouse in 2017).

In the third iteration of the Playoff championship format from 2014-Present – Only one driver outside the Playoff cutoff has raced their way into the Playoffs in the regular season finale through points or last-minute wins.

  • From 2014 to 2018 – the drivers that won or were inside the top 16 that were expected to make the Playoffs did, no drivers raced their way into the Playoffs in the regular season finale on points or wins.
  • In 2019, heading into the regular season finale at Indianapolis, Ryan Newman was tied with Daniel Suarez for the 16th and final transfer position to the Playoffs. Newman finished eighth in the regular season finale to Suarez’s 11th, earning the final transfer spot into the postseason.

But, for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last four winners have earned their first career Cup victories. The other was just his second. A total of 21 drivers have posted their first NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona; 11 of the 21 drivers posted their first win in the summer race – the most recent was the 2019 July race with winner Justin Haley and Spire Motorsports and last year with William Byron. Does that bode well for Saturday night for someone on the outside looking in?

Eight drivers below the cutline have never won a Cup race before.

Matt DiBenedetto is winless and was 12th in this race last year but just 33rd in the Daytona 500. He did lead the most laps in the 2019 Daytona 500 though and was seventh and eighth respectively with Go Fas Racing in this very race in 2017 and 2018.

Ross Chastain is winless in Cup but the Florida native did win an Xfinity Series race here in 2019 and was seventh back in February.

Bubba Wallace was fifth in this very race a year ago and had a really fast race car in February.

Ryan Preece had a top six in his Duel in February to race his way in, was second in the first stage and sixth in the Daytona 500.

Corey LaJoie has three top 10 finishes in his last four Daytona starts including a ninth place run in February.

I’d watch out for them. But, they’re not the only ones.

Chris Buescher, has one career Cup win but does have five top 10 finishes in his last eight Daytona tries including three of those being in the top five.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Erik Jones are each past winners of this event and do some their best work on superspeedway’s.

Ryan Newman is a past Daytona 500 champion and has five top 10 finishes in his last eight Daytona starts.

That’s 10 drivers below the cutline that could make Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick each very uneasy on Saturday night.

So, will anyone bump their way in? I say, yes.

Will We See Another Fluke Winner?

It seems like every time we go to a superspeedway that we have to talk about the potential for fluke winners. In reality though, the wiser bets for Daytona or Talladega are on the usual suspects that normally run up front instead of a hot longshot.

See, winning at one of NASCAR’s most prestigious tracks, Daytona International Speedway, is a major accomplishment too. So, it is not all that surprising that the top 10 series winningest drivers at Daytona are all also in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But, this race has increasingly become one to look for in terms of sleepers.

For the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last four winners have earned their first career Cup victories. The other was just his second.

2020 – William Byron (1st career win in August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400)

2019 -Justin Haley (1st career win)

2018 – Erik Jones (1st career win)

2017 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2nd career win)

2014 – Aric Almirola (1st career win)

2011 – David Ragan (1st career win)

For the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin has won three of the last six years but the other three winners were Austin Dillon (2nd career win), Kurt Busch (1st career restrictor plate win) and Michael McDowell (1st career Cup win).

That opens the door. So, who is up next?

Ross Chastain is winless in Cup but the Florida native did win an Xfinity Series race here in 2019 and was seventh back in February.

Bubba Wallace was fifth in this very race a year ago and had a really fast race car in February.

Ryan Preece had a top six in his Duel in February to race his way in, was second in the first stage and sixth in the Daytona 500.

Corey LaJoie has three top 10 finishes in his last four Daytona starts including a ninth place run in February. With us running out of names, I think if this trend continues, it’s going to be one of those four.

Is This The New Future Of The Race?

This is the second straight year that the annual summer classic in Daytona Beach will take place in August. See, this is just the third time since 1959 that the Coke Zero Sugar 400 has taken place outside of the Fourth of July weekend. One was 1998 due to the wildfires. The other two were the last couple of years. That bodes the question, will this race remain on this place on the schedule?

The last two years we’ve had two different races on the Fourth of July weekend. Indianapolis handled those duties in 2020 but they didn’t feel like it was best for them to be in that spot on NASCAR’s calendar. So, off they went and in came Road America for this year. That proved to be a hit which meant that any thoughts of moving Daytona back goes to the back burner for a little while longer.

See, while Road America seemed nice, Daytona and the Fourth of July weekend will also be a perfect marriage to me. Most of the garage feels the same way. But, with how well Road America did go and the way the playoffs and the schedule is laid out, I don’t see Daytona going back to July any time soon either.

NASCAR wants the regular season to matter. They don’t want to go to the 26th and final regular season race without much of a chance for someone to move their way back into the postseason. Richmond and Indianapolis weren’t the best two spots for this to happen. Daytona and Talladega are the best tracks to produce an unlikely winner though, but I don’t see Talladega giving up one of their dates for this slot in the schedule.

See, they have a playoff date and why give that up? Moving the first race to the regular season finale is too close to the playoff date so they’re not a likely candidate.

Daytona isn’t moving the Daytona 500 for obvious reasons. So, the Firecracker 400 is the one who gets moved. I question though, is it fair to end the regular season on a superspeedway?

If you’re not a playoff team come the 26th race of the season, is it fair if you win and all the sudden become one? I mean, if someone 17th on back wins Saturday night’s race, isn’t that a comparison to an 7-8 NFL team winning the last game of the regular season and somehow being in the playoffs?

What about someone 25th on back in the standings? What if they win? That’s like saying a 3-12 NFL team was down six on their final drive of the regular season and threw a hail mary to win as the clock expired to 4-12 but because they won the last game in dramatic fashion, they bump a deserving playoff team out.

That’s kind of how this season is looking.

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon have all earned spots into this year’s postseason. They’ve been consistently better than all those drivers behind them but if one of those drivers behind them wins, the lowest in points among the previous four gets bumped out.

How is that remarkably fair?

What Kind Of Race Will We See?

Last year we saw as thrilling of a Coke Zero Sugar 400 as we’ve ever seen. I thought drivers would just ride around since there was no real incentive for stage points and you just needing to be there in the end to win. Instead, from the drop of the green flag to the checkered, it was a thrilling race.

How will Saturday night’s race look, especially based on the fact that we have a tweak to the aero package, what’s at stake and how the Daytona 500 went?

“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.”

Chris Buescher agreed about the unknowns.

“I don’t have all the right answers here,” said the Roush Fenway Racing driver. “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.”

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.

I think we’re in for a what should be insane finish and one that I’m concerned we may get someone potentially hurt in the process.

For starters, in regards to the new aero package which should slow the cars down again, the closing rate will also be slower which in turn could make this more of a track position race again. Just once in the last 11 Daytona points paying races has the winner started from the top five. Does that change now?

“The runs will probably be not as big, not as quick,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 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.”

With the tapered spacer, the runs in the draft behind were so large, you couldn’t block them. Drivers still tried and it caused mayhem and chaos. Now, you may be able to defend your position again a bit easier. How will that affect the drivers inside of the cars upfront?

“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.”

Buescher agreed with that too.

“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.

Plus, other than the Joey Logano/Brad Keselowski crash at the end of the Daytona 500, most of the race was anticlimactic, especially the ending.

Part is due to the rain delay. See, normally when you get a long rain delay and the race back going, it’s pretty tame. No one wants to risk an early crash and to go home. So, you just ride it out.

Then, the end of the ‘500 was a perfect storm per say.

Denny Hamlin had the car to beat in that race. He led a race-high 98 of 200 laps and well on his way to becoming the first three-peat champion in the races 63 year history.

Then the final pit sequence happened.

The Toyota’s hit pit lane last among the three manufacturers. It cost them.

The Fords were lined up and the Toyota’s couldn’t get formed quick enough to stay ahead.

Hamlin, had too big of a lead over teammate Kyle Busch and neither were close enough to use each other as drafting help. The Ford train was coming and blew right by them with 25 laps-to-go.

“We were too far out front (on the final pit stop),” Hamlin said then. “We got on-and-off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack.”

The pack would go single file and run at the top of the banking all the way around until a few to go. There wasn’t enough energy built up for the Chevrolet’s or Toyota’s to make any ground. They knew it would take a lot for them to break up the five Ford’s up front.

If you go to the bottom line, you need enough cars to build some energy. There just wasn’t enough.

“I figured the Chevys would make a move from two or three to go, because they are not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth,” Hamlin continued. “I was able to gain some positions. I think I was 12th and everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything. I hoped once I got to eighth as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy – in the area where I can make something happen. Dominant car, just a dominant car. Just one of those things that execute too good.”

How does this play into it? We know teammates will work together again as will manufacturers.

Manufacturers and teammates work together almost exclusively on superspeedway’s now. These two are going to have moments where they’re working together.

Toyota started it in 2016, Ford perfected it there after and Chevrolet brought it to a head in the 2019 Daytona 500. What “it” is, is manufacturer alliances on superspeedway’s.

For the 2016 Daytona 500, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota’s knew that they didn’t have strength in numbers compared to their car count vs. the Ford’s/Chevy’s, so they teamed up only with each other. It panned out for a 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500 that year.

After that race, Ford took notice and had their powerplant line up together and draft with one another during the four combined annual stops at Daytona and Talladega. Ford, already had good motors for these tracks, but throw in teamwork and you get domination in the form of 13 of the last 20 races won when using the restrictor plates.

They were in everyone’s head. So, for the 2019 Daytona 500, the Toyota’s knew that they didn’t have the numbers to contend for the win. Hendrick Motorsports, a Chevrolet team, knew that the other Chevy cars weren’t good enough to hang with them to challenge the Ford’s. So, we saw an unlikely tandem for the ‘500 – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyota’s and their alliance car at Leavine Family Racing and the Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevy’s.

Combined, that’s nine very good race cars that with even the smallest bit of help from any other Chevy team, could work together and break up the Ford party up front.

See, Ford’s knew that if they lined up in tow, go up to the high line and pull each other around the 2.5-mile track, it didn’t matter how many Chevy’s or Toyota’s lineup, no one could stop them.

So, HMS and the Toyota’s teamed up and ran up there with them, then would use the draft to take air off the Ford’s and break them apart.

It worked.

Toyota finished 1-2-3 in the ‘500, Ford’s grew frustrated with one another and the Chevy teams were pissed that HMS sought out a late hour deal with a rival manufacturer.

In turn, Chevy had a closed door meeting afterwards and made sure that this didn’t happen again. Chevy teams could only work and draft with other Chevy teams. No more helping the competition.

Ford teams would still try and do the same. The Toyota’s? Well they were hung out to dry.

Chevy was the biggest beneficiary of this. HMS would finish 1-2 in the first race with the tapered spacer in April 2019 in Talladega including Chevy going 1-2-3 overall and taking five of the top six finishing positions.

In the July race at Daytona, Chevy went 1-2-3-4 this time.

But, in the second stop to Talladega in the Fall that year, the Ford’s found a way to get back to prominence. They’d lead 125 of the 188 laps run and take a 1-2 finish and four of the top five. Chevy, took spots 6-8-10.

Last year and Daytona this year was the same way. That’s why with what’s at stake, I think you immediately lineup with teammates and run single file up top. You really only have four of the 40 starters this weekend racing for stage points so if you’re not one of the four, why mix it up and worry about crashing when you need to be there in the end?

That means you likely will be battling a teammate for the win in the end too. How do you race a teammate in the end with the ultimate goal of wanting to win and doing everything in your power to do so, but your teammate could block you. It’s not like you can lift. That causes mayhem with the old package, but what about the changes now that were made.

So, if we’re in the same position again, Logano-Keselowski and they’re 1-2 in any order on the final lap, how does this play out where they don’t both wreck and one of them wins?

Also, the ending is going to be edge of your seat frightening good. The cars 18th-30th in points have to win in order to get in the playoffs. They’re going to be racing for their lives and when doing so, you tend to be more on the aggressive side. It does them no good to finish second. So, with what should be a handful of them in the lead pack towards the end of the race, you may see some big carnage with those drivers making moves towards the front in a place they’re not used to being.

Think about it, there’s a reason they’re in this position. They’ve not run up front enough to be in the playoffs. I mean most of the drivers 18th on back in points have never won a race before. How does one race around a desperate winless driver at the end?

They may tense up and get more nervous than they typically would. That too leads to mistakes which is why I’m on edge thinking about how Saturday night’s race is going to end. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m fearful drivers will drive over their heads with desperation and put someone in dangerous positions.

The “Big 3” teams have won the last seven Busch Clashes on the oval. They’ve won 16 of the last 18 Duels, six of the last nine Daytona 500’s and five of the last eight Coke Zero Sugar 400’s.

But, they went winless in February. SHR and RCR won the Duels with Front Row Motorsports winning the ‘500. But, factor in SHR and RCR into this and you still get 9-for-9 in the Clash, 18-for-18 in Duels, 8-for-9 in the ‘500 and 5-for-8 in the ‘400 since 2013.

That’s 37-for-40.

Other than that, the only other three organizations to have won a race in NASCAR’s premiere series at Daytona since 2013 was Richard Petty Motorsports (Aric Almirola) in the 2014 ‘400, Roush/Fenway Racing (Ricky Stenhouse Jr) in the 2017 ‘400, Spire Motorsports (Justin Haley) in the rain shortened ‘400 in July 2019 and Front Row Motorsports (Michael McDowell) in February’s Daytona 500.

Hamlin who’s won three Daytona 500’s, including two of the last three years and the one he didn’t win (February) he led the most laps (98). He’s winless in the ‘400.

Team Penske could have went 1-2 in February but crashed out while fighting for the win on the final lap in Turn 3. Brad Keselowski made up for it via a win in Talladega this spring.

Also, what about McDowell. Can he sweep the year at Daytona? Just twice since 1982 has someone swept both Daytona races in the same year though. But, he was also runner-up at Talladega back in April too.

Will The New Package Work?

NASCAR has made updates to the new superspeedway package in wake of some recent crashes, most notably the one by Joey Logano at Talladega back in April.

Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford went airborne in a multicar stack-up, skidding on its roof before sliding back to a stop on all four wheels. He emerged unhurt, but was vocal in advocating for safety measures on NASCAR’s fastest ovals.

A day after the crash, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller said that keeping cars planted to the racing surface in the event of a high-speed spin was “something that we‘ve been working on and will continue to work on.” Miller said NASCAR competition officials would collaborate with crew chiefs, drivers and team engineers to work through all suggestions and details.

These changes come in wake of more changes made following Ryan Newman’s frightening crash on the final lap of the 2020 Daytona 500.

The question is, will they work?

NASCAR competition officials announced rules changes Tuesday with the intent to slow Cup Series cars by approximately 7-10 mph at superspeedway events.

Officials issued the rules bulletin to teams Tuesday afternoon, mandating a smaller tapered spacer for NASCAR’s largest ovals, with the opening reduced from 57/64-inch to 53/64-inch. The rules also remove the wicker from the spoiler, and a reinforced roll bar that was previously optional — behind the driver compartment and near the rear wheel well — is now mandatory.

The Cup Series returns to Talladega for the final superspeedway event of the year Oct. 3. It’s scheduled as the final such race for the current-generation Cup Series model before the Next Gen car makes its debut in the 2022 Daytona 500.

Some fans may wonder, what does this change mean to what we see. Well, while the speeds will be lower, it’s not going to be enough for us to notice a difference from the naked eye. The cars are still going to run in a pack and it’s still going to look incredibly fast. The type of racing could alter a bit though as there’s going to be less drag which may allow the cars up front to be able to hold a lead again.

See, part of the problem with the tapered spacer package is that the cars in the draft behind get such big runs, there’s nothing the cars in front can do. So, they result to blocking and when they do that, chaos ensues.

Now, with less drag, it could help a bit for the closing rates to be a bit smaller. Decreasing the speeds that they’re running can help keep these cars more grounded too which is a win-win for all.

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