5 things I’m watching for Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

Blaney vs. Truex

This has taken a bit of a drastic turn this week. Initially it was looking like this battle between Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. was for the final playoff spot. Now, it’s not as dire.

With Kurt Busch withdrawing his waiver, a playoff spot opens up moving Martin Truex Jr. from 25 points down to 187 points up.

However, it’s not like both he and Blaney aren’t competing against other still on Saturday night at the Daytona International Speedway. While they know 1 of them will definitely be into the postseason now, there’s a chance still the other may not.

If anyone of the 14 (Kurt Busch is listed as out) drivers that are already locked into the show wins the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN), then the both are in. However, if Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon or Todd Gilliland wins, then it’s still between Blaney and Truex for the final spot.

Nothing changes for those 13 drivers needing a win. They had to already win anyhow. If they don’t win it’s a moot point, but if one of them do, then Blaney or Truex is out.

They’re still battling each other for points because the one with the lesser amount of points between them are out.

Which is why they have an interesting predicament on Saturday. You would think they’d have to be planning on stage points. Why punt on points?

However, by mixing it up towards the front of the pack in trying to gain those crucial stage points, they could also get caught up in someone else’s mess and taken out in a crash. By having that occur, it could in theory dash their playoff hopes.

Blaney leads Truex Jr. by 25 right now. Blaney won this race last year. Truex swept both stages in February’s Daytona 500. If say Blaney elects to ride around in the back to ensure that he’s there in the end but Truex sweeps the stages again, that deficit between the two heading to the final stage is down to a mere 5 points.

What about the flipside? What if Truex decides to just wait it on and ride around the back but Blaney sweeps the stages instead? That gap grows to 45 and forces Truex in a potential must-win. Truex Jr is a combined 0-for-71 between Daytona, Talladega and the 2 races at Atlanta this year.

The thing for Blaney, just 5 drivers have posted consecutive summer race wins at Daytona International Speedway: Fireball Roberts (1962-1963), A.J. Foyt (1964-1965), Cale Yarborough (1967-1968) David Pearson (1972 – 1974) and Tony Stewart (2005-2006). Blaney is looking to become just the 6th driver to ever do it.

“You can’t stress yourself out about it,” said Blaney. “It is either going to happen, or it isn’t, whether you make the Playoffs or not.”

See why stage points are key for both?

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 20: Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, and Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, race to the finish of the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Will Someone New Bump Their Ways In?

While Blaney and Truex will be fighting for that final spot on points, they each now have a path to make it in so long as someone behind them doesn’t win. But will one of those 13 drivers behind win though?

Since the inception of the Playoffs in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2004, Richmond Raceway hosted the regular season finale from 2004 to 2017 (14 years), and then from 2018-2019 Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted the final regular season event. This weekend marks the third time the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway has hosted the Cup Series regular season finale (2020-2022).

The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is currently operating in its third iteration of the postseason’s points system since its inception in 2004. The first Playoff points system (from 2004 to 2009) had the top 10 to 12 drivers earn their position in the Playoffs by points only. The second version of the Playoff points system (2010 to 2013) incorporated the top 10 drivers to get in on wins/points with the addition of two extra drivers referred to as the Wild cards. The third version of the Playoff points system (2014 to Present) features drivers vying for the top 16 Playoff spots either by points or the ‘Win and You’re In’ rule. The third version of the Playoffs also instituted the elimination style format with four drivers being eliminated from the Playoffs at the conclusion of each postseason round culminating with the Championship 4 battling it out for the title in the season finale.   

Playoff Points System 1 (2004-2006 – Top 10 in on Points; 2007-2009 – Top 12 in on Points)

Four drivers have come from outside the postseason cutoff to make the Playoffs at Richmond in the first iteration of the Playoff championship format:

  1. Jeremy Mayfield in 2004 made up a 55-point deficit
  2. Ryan Newman in 2005 made up a one-point deficit
  3. Kasey Kahne in 2006 made up a 30-point deficit
  4. Brian Vickers in 2009 made up a 20-point deficit

Playoff Points System 2 (2010-2013 – Top 10 in on Wins/Points and Two Wildcards)

Seven drivers have come from outside the postseason cutoff to make the Playoffs at Richmond in the second iteration of the Playoff championship format that incorporates the Wild Card:

  1. Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer are the two drivers that clinched the Wild Card in 2010 to make the Playoffs. Biffle was 11th in points with one win; Bowyer was 12th in points with no wins heading into the regular season finale.
  1. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are the two drivers that clinched the Wild Card in 2011 to make the Playoffs. Keselowski was 11th in points with three wins; Hamlin was 12th in points with one win heading into the regular season finale.
  1. Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon are the two drivers that clinched the Wild Card in 2012 to make the Playoffs. Kahne was 11th in points with two wins; Gordon was 13th in points with one win heading into the regular season finale.
  1. Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne are the two drivers that clinched the Wild Card in 2013 to make the Playoffs. Kahne was 12th in points with two wins; Newman was 14th in points with one win heading into regular season finale.
  1. Due to a rare instance in the final race of the regular season that resulted in penalties being issued in 2013; a 13th car (Jeff Gordon’s No. 24) was added to the Playoffs. It was the second time in the Playoff Era the number of entries was expanded.

Playoff Points System 3 (2014 – Present – Top 16 in on Wins or Points/Elimination Style)

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

  1. From 2014 to 2018, the drivers that won or were inside the top 16 in the standings 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.
  1. In 2019, heading into the regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 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-place finish, earning the final transfer spot into the postseason.
  1. In 2020, six drivers inside the Playoff cutoff (top 16) had not clinched a spot in the postseason heading into Daytona, but all six ultimately clinched their spots, led by William Byron, who became the first driver to win his way into the Playoffs by taking the victory in the regular season finale. No drivers outside the top 16 advanced into Playoffs in the regular season finale.
  1. Heading into the final race of the regular season at Daytona International Speedway, the 2021 season had produced 13 different winners with two additional drivers clinching their spots on points leaving just one spot still available to make the Playoffs, and it was Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick battling it out for the final postseason position. Ultimately, Ryan Blaney won the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway, but he had already clinched his spot in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs earlier in the season. Because of the repeat winner, the 16th and final Playoff spot was earned by points, and it was Tyler Reddick’s fifth-place finish to Austin Dillon’s 17th at Daytona that earned him enough points to advance for the first time in his career to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Also, since the ‘Win and Your In’ format to the Playoffs was initiated in 2017, Erik Jones’ 2018 summer race win and William Byron’s in 2020 are the only summer race winners 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).

A total of 15 NASCAR Cup Series Daytona winners are active this weekend and 10 of those 15 have won the summer event at Daytona. Eight of the 15 need a win this weekend to secure their spot in the Playoffs (drivers needing a win to make Playoffs bolded in chart below).

RankActive Daytona Race WinnersWinsSeasons
1Denny Hamlin32020 (Feb.), 2019 (Feb.), 2016 (Feb.)
2Kevin Harvick22010 (July), 2007 (Feb.)
3Austin Cindric12022 (Feb.)
4Ryan Blaney12021 (Aug.)
5Michael McDowell12021 (Feb.)
6William Byron12020 (Aug.)
7Justin Haley12019 (July)
8Erik Jones12018 (July)
9Austin Dillon12018 (Feb.)
10Ricky Stenhouse Jr12017 (July)
11Kurt Busch12017 (Feb.)
12Brad Keselowski12016 (July)
13Joey Logano12015 (Feb.)
14Aric Almirola12014 (July)
15David Ragan12011 (July)
16Kyle Busch12008 (July)

One thing Daytona International Speedway is known for is unpredictable finishes that on occasion produce first-time winners in the NASCAR Cup Series. In fact, three of the last four NASCAR Cup Series summer races at Daytona International Speedway have fashioned just that – first-time winners.

A total of 23 different drivers have posted their first NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona International Speedway, 11 of the 23 drivers posted their first win in the summer races. The most recent first-time winner at Daytona was back in February when Team Penske’s Austin Cindric became the first rookie to win the Daytona 500 season opener. The most recent first-time winner in the summer races at Daytona was the August race of 2020 with race winner William Byron earning his spot in the Playoffs.

First-Time Cup Race Winners (23) at Daytona Start Pos.DateDriver’s Age
Austin Cindric5Sunday, February 20, 202223
Michael McDowell17Sunday, February 14, 202136
William Byron6Saturday, August 29, 202022
Justin Haley34Sunday, July 7, 201920
Erik Jones29Saturday, July 7, 201822
Aric Almirola15Sunday, July 6, 201430
David Ragan5Saturday, July 2, 201125
Trevor Bayne32Sunday, February 20, 201120
Greg Biffle30Saturday, July 5, 200333
Michael Waltrip19Sunday, February 18, 200137
John Andretti3Saturday, July 5, 199734
Jimmy Spencer3Saturday, July 2, 199437
Sterling Marlin4Sunday, February 20, 199436
Derrike Cope12Sunday, February 18, 199031
Greg Sacks9Thursday, July 4, 198532
Pete Hamilton9Sunday, February 22, 197027
Mario Andretti12Sunday, February 26, 196726
Sam McQuagg4Monday, July 4, 196628
Earl Balmer6Friday, February 25, 196630
A.J. Foyt19Saturday, July 4, 196429
Bobby Isaac4Friday, February 21, 196431
Tiny Lund12Sunday, February 24, 196333
Johnny Rutherford9Friday, February 22, 196324

However, in saying that, for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last five winners have earned their first career Cup victories. 1 of the 2 others was just his second.

Notable Coke Zero Sugar 400 1st time Winners

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 7 years but the other three winners were Austin Dillon (2nd career win), Kurt Busch (1st career restrictor plate win), Michael McDowell (1st career Cup win) and Austin Cindric (1st career Cup win).

Just 4 drivers below the cutline have never won a race before.

Ty Dillon has three top six finishes in his last 5 starts in Daytona including a sixth place run in the 2020 Daytona 500 and a top 10 going in this past year’s Daytona 500 to where he finished 11th.

Corey LaJoie was eighth and ninth the last two years in the Daytona 500, sixth in the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400, had a fast car in last year’s race and was a lap away from an Atlanta win last month.

Rookies Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland showed speed in Daytona this past 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 10 Daytona starts. He was third in the 2020 Daytona 500 and ninth in the ‘400 that year. He crossed the finish line 2nd in last year’s 400 before a penalty negated that. He won a Duel this past February too. Plus, Stenhouse Jr. was great in this car at Daytona before him. He also has 3 top 10 finishes in the last 4 weeks on the season too.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Erik Jones are each past winners of this event and do some their best work on superspeedway’s. For Jones, he has 3 top 10’s in the last 5 weeks on the season too.

Brad Keselowski won a Duel back in February and is always a threat on superspeedways. 2 of Aric Almirola’s 3 Cup wins came on these tracks. Bubba Wallace was 2nd here last year, 2nd here in February and won Talladega last Fall.

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

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 15: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, Kurt Busch, driver of the #45 Monster Energy Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, drive during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)


Ford’s have been the most dominate manufacturer on superspeedway’s lately. That didn’t change at Daytona back in February either. They went 1-2-3-4-5 in the opening practice and then 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 in the second one. While Chevy’s flexed their muscles in qualifying, Ford’s went 1-2-3-4 and 1-2-3 in the two Duels a day later. In the Friday practice, the Ford’s were 1-2-3-4-5-6 again before being 1-2-3-4-5 in final practice.

So in the race, it’s not shocking that they put 7 cars in the top nine finishing spots including a Daytona 500 triumph.

However, a Chevy car has won the other 3 superspeedway races run this season.

Ford had won 3 of the last 5 at Talladega including 10 of the last 13 in general entering the spring race weekend. In terms of the spring race, Ford has won 5 out of the last 6 years.

A Chevy won in going 1-2.

For Atlanta, Chevy won both races there too with both being by a Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Does Chevy now have an advantage again?

Chase Elliott has a top 10 in all 4 races on these track this season. Ross Chastain has 3 straight top 2’s. Erik Jones has 2 straight top 6’s. Austin Dillon was 2nd back in Talladega in April.

Toyota’s look like the ones who needs the most work. They went 2-6-13-19-34-37 in the Daytona 500, 3-8-13-23-29-33 in Atlanta 1, 3-5-16-17-22-29 in Talladega and 11-14-19-20-22-25 in Atlanta 2.

Penske put 2 cars in the top 4 for the Penske cam in the Daytona 500. Harrison Burton looked good at Daytona and was even in the lead group before ending up flipped.

Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher combined to win both Duels in Daytona with Keselowski leading the most laps in the ‘500 itself too. The last time RFK has won? 2017 at both Talladega and Daytona.

Then for SHR, they had 2 cars finish in the top five at Daytona, a third in Kevin Harvick having a top five car before being collected in a crash while racing for the win inside of 10 to go and a fourth who’s been fast lately.

So who has the advantage?

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 20: Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The “Big 3”

Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports won all but five Speedweeks races between 2013 and 2020. They’re 6 for the last 9 in the ‘400.

Last year though, they were 0-for-3 on the oval during Speedweeks. Stewart-Haas Racing (Aric Almirola), Richard Childress Racing (Austin Dillon) and Front Row Motorsports (Michael McDowell) won the Duels and the ‘500. So far this year, RFK Racing went 2-for-2 in the Duels but Penske won the Daytona 500 from Austin Cindric.

Does someone outside that “Big 3” win on Saturday night?

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 20: Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

How Will The Race Look? Another Last Lap Pass For The Win?

With so many drivers needing to have to win, it’s basically checkers or wreckers for half of the field. Only Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are going for points. The rest don’t give a rip about points.

Chase Elliott has locked in the regular season championship. So ono one can catch him. 2nd place gets 10 playoff points while 3rd gets 8. Kyle Larson leads Ryan Blaney by 11 points for that spot. How much is Larson and Blaney eying those 2 additional playoff points between finishing 2nd (10 points) and 3rd (8 points).

10th place gets 1 playoff points while 11th-16th receive 0 bonus points for regular season points finish. However, William Byron is 49 points ahead of teammate Alex Bowman for that 10th and final spot to receive them. That’s a wide margin which means really only Larson and Blaney are thinking regular season points finish for that playoff point differential.

The rest of the drivers are just hoping for a win. That’s it. Points and finishing position doesn’t matter whatsoever. Which leads me to wonder what most of the race in the first 100 laps will look like.

The 2020 race, the first in this position of the schedule, had 35 lead changes. The only cautions from Lap 1-143 was for the pair of stage breaks and the competition caution.

Just 12.8% of the race was run under caution. That was 18.7% for the Daytona 500. Last year’s Daytona 500 saw 20% of the race run under yellow. Last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 was a little more wild with 45 lead changes but there was still only 1 caution for a crash in the opening 2 stages.

So what happens on Saturday?

I have a feeling you’ll see some give and take for a while before chaos in the end.

 Five of the last seven Daytona 500’s have seen a last lap pass for the win. Denny Hamlin stormed through the pack and passed his teammate Matt Kenseth for the lead in Turn 4 of the final lap in 2016 and held off a hard charging Martin Truex Jr. for the victory.

In 2017, Kurt Busch passed Kyle Larson in Turn 2 on the final lap.

In 2018, Austin Dillon crashed Aric Almirola on the backstretch going for the win.

In 2020, Hamlin did it again with a last lap pass of Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney for the victory.

Last year, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had a fiery crash in Turn 3 on the final lap which allowed Michael McDowell to triumph.

Austin Cindric made a late race pass for the win back in February.

For the ‘400, Ryan Blaney only led the final 7 laps en route to his win. In 2018 and 2019, Erik Jones and Justin Haley only led the final lap. Back in Talladega this past spring, Ross Chastain only led the final lap.

None of the speedway winners this year led a lap until the final stage.

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