NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Saturday night’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) at Daytona. 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 fourth time ever. 1 came in the wildfires in 1998 and the others were this move to this race weekend the last 3 years.

Still, we have 14 drivers now that have clinched a spot to the postseason with just 2 more spots 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 leaving Ryan Blaney or Martin Truex Jr. out?

The gap between he and Martin Truex Jr is 25. Ironically enough, that is the same deficit Austin Dillon had behind his teammate Tyler Reddick last year. Everyone else needed to win.

Similar situation now.

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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 – AUGUST 28: A general view of racing during the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on August 28, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Is The Coke Zero Sugar 400 Best Placed In August Still?

This is the 3rd straight year that the Coke Zero Sugar 400 will wrap up the Cup Series regular season. However, is this the best place for this race on the schedule? I get the notion on why it’s here. NASCAR wants to end the regular season on a place to where anyone in the field can win. It makes sense to keep the attention on the playoff field all the way through. It builds excitement and this weekend has a lot of it surrounding the race.

In saying that, I still don’t like Daytona’s summer race here in this spot. I never have. It doesn’t feel right. So what can you do then?

The Daytona 500 will never move from February. As it shouldn’t. NASCAR isn’t going to move Talladega from the playoffs. As they shouldn’t. With each track having 2 dates annually how do you place them on the calendar?

Talladega’s 1st race has to be far enough apart from the Fall race to not make NASCAR want to end the regular season there. That leaves this race to fill this race weekend.

However, now that Atlanta is a drafting track, does it open the door to maybe replace Daytona in this spot and allow Daytona to move back to the 4th of July weekend?

It’s no secret, the best place selfishly is for the ‘400 to always be run on the Fourth of July weekend. It just feels right. It always has. This race on this weekend just feels awkward. It doesn’t feel right.

I get the notion of it. It works. But it has just seemed off. I feel like moving the ‘400 back to it’s traditional date would spark a rise in attendance too so why not find something else to take Daytona’s place in this date and find a path to get Daytona back to where it belongs.

The 4th is a major date on the schedule and Road America didn’t deliver the ratings that Daytona could there. Atlanta’s summer race isn’t working. It’s too hot. The attendance and ratings aren’t favorable there either.

Atlanta being a night race to wrap up the regular season would be ideal because it’s not as pot luck as Daytona would be but a hybrid instead. The drivers may favor that better instead of what Daytona offers.

A lot of people never felt like having a Speedway race set the final playoff spot was fair. I get the notion you want to make it eligible for everyone to still have a shot, but isn’t Atlanta the most level playing field for both sides?

You can Speedway race but also get some separation. You had Spire running for a win and a championship front runner still reaching victory lane. We saw a pair of Trackhouse cars, a Petty Ware car, a Spire car and Kaulig car in the top 10 at the end of the July race. It’s a perfect fit to move Atlanta to the regular season finale and Daytona back to July.

You boost Daytona, boost Atlanta and help TV in the process…

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)

Is The Low Line The Preferred Line Again?

We saw back in February that the high line conga parade was moved to the low lane. Does it remain that way this weekend too?

“The cars are built symmetrical. Last year’s car was built asymmetrical, and so this car is built symmetrical, and specifically how that affects it is when the cars were asymmetrical the side draft off the right side was really, really sensitive and the side draft off the left side was not sensitive at all — well, it was minimally sensitive,” Keselowski continued. “So you never really wanted to expose your right side. If somebody got underneath you, you could come back down and grab their right rear quarter panel and just stop them.

“So that naturally created this kind of gravitation towards the top lanes at all the plate tracks. With this car being symmetrical and that not being the case, I think the racing will be significantly better because that high lane freight train won’t be there.

“I felt like early in the race I was behind Ryan Blaney for a while early in the race, and I was ready to go, and he stayed calm, which was smart on his part, I guess. He stayed calm but I felt like we could have pushed and made the second lane work. I think all of us wanted to get through that pit stop and stretch our legs out and take it from there.”

Last Lap Pass For The Win?

All this chaos over the recent years have seen wild finishes. 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.

Did Chevrolet Close Ford’s Speedway Advantage?

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?

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