DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Kurt Busch withdrew his playoff waiver request and in turn opened up a playoff spot into the 16 driver NASCAR Cup Series postseason field. Instead of Ryan Blaney leading Martin Truex Jr. by 25 points for the 16th and final spot, he now leads Truex by 25 points for 15th.
That spot is just as crucial because whichever one is in 15th takes a guaranteed spot. The bottom one has to worry in the event one of the 13 other winless drivers happens to win Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN).
That could happen too.
5 of the last 6 winners of this race are all winless this year and that includes Blaney. The other 4 are each below the cutline.
Which is why both Blaney and Truex know they each have to likely win still in order to ensure they’re not on the wrong side of the cutline at the drop of the checkered flag.
“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.”
As Blaney attempts to make the postseason for the sixth time in his career this weekend, he will also be looking to become the sixth driver in series history to win consecutive Summer races at Daytona; joining Fireball Roberts (1962-1963), A.J. Foyt (1964-1965), Cale Yarborough (1967-1968) David Pearson (1972 – 1974) and Tony Stewart (2005-2006).
Truex on the other hand is looking for his first win on a superspeedway since joining the NASCAR Cup Series. In 34 Daytona starts, he has put up three top fives and five top 10s. He finished runner-up in this race in 2018.
In saying that, both have similar plans on Saturday night – stage points. While it’s a risk, it’s one worth taking for them.
“I think our mindset is race like normal,” Blaney told reporters on Friday afternoon at the Daytona International Speedway. “Honestly, you always want to go up and try to win the race. You always want to get stage points. You always want to try to stay out of the wrecks. I don’t really see having any other thought process.
“If you play conservative, you can find yourself in a bad spot at the end of the race if you just ride around at the back and don’t get stage points.”
Truex agreed with that assessment.
“I think we need to go race and try to stay at the front and try to get stage points,” he said.
If Blaney went for stage points and Truex didn’t, then the worst case for Truex would be that he’d sit 45 points behind Blaney entering the final stage. That puts him in a must win.
If you combine Talladega to this, Truex is a combined 0-for-69. If he goes for stage points and Blaney doesn’t, then Truex could cut his deficit to as little as 5 heading to the final stage. Blaney notes that you can lose 5 positions on track in a single lap here so he’d be uneasy if it fell to that margin.
Truex swept both stages here this past February and notes that he’s had better cars on superspeedway’s than his stats lead. He truly feels like he’s got a solid shot to take his No. 19 Toyota to victory lane under the lights on Saturday and to do so with what he’s facing would be massive he notes.
“They brought the last regular season race here for a reason” Truex says. “There’s a lot of things that can happen and we’ll take it from there.
“I think we had a really strong car here in February. Led a ton of laps, won two stages. Then we got kind of banged up and then finished kind of tore-up, so you didn’t have the speed at the end of the race.
“But I had a really strong day going and Talladega went good as well, so I feel like our car is really fast here. And hopefully we can take advantage of that. Would be a fun way to win one here with everything on the line.’’
Would Truex push Blaney to victory though? He said in an weird way he would because if Blaney wins, then Truex makes the show himself too.
“I won’t be pushing anyone that has to win,” Truex joked.
Oddly enough, Truex’ best friend on Saturday night is Blaney and vice versa.