5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Mother nature has reared her ugly head this weekend on Florida’s east coast. Qualifying was washed out on Friday. The race was a complete washout on Saturday. Now, we’ll try again on Sunday for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (10 a.m. ET, CNBC, MRN). Here are 5 things I’m watching.

Weather

There’s still more rain on the forecast for Sunday with a 50-60% chance at race time. In fact, one could say Sunday’s forecast is just as bad as Saturday’s, if not worse. Which is why my eyes are to the skies. Halfway in this race is Lap 80. Can we get there?

This wouldn’t be the 1st rain shortened race here. It’s happened 3 times (1996, 2014, 2019). Can someone steal a win on Sunday as a result of mother nature?

Too many drivers are thinking win on Sunday. Only 2 drivers are thinking points. It’s why I expect the first 100-120 laps to run pretty tame so long as there’s not weather in the area. Why risk wadding up your car when you need to be there in the end to win?

If rain is threatening, then expect the action to ramp up for most of the way because you have to be up front in the off chance it starts raining and end this race early.

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 Sunday?

It all depends on weather.

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.

The thing is, with so many drivers needing a win, how do you race those that also need a win in the end? Do you really want to push someone needing a win to the victory stripe when you also need to reach victory lane?

I sense a lot of drivers may duck out of line to help themselves which could lead to some late race chaos. If Ty Dillon, Todd Gilliland and Brad Keselowski are in one lane and Austin Dillon, Harrison Burton and Erik Jones are in another, why would either of these 6 help each other? They need to win. Helping the other to a win doesn’t help you.

Which is why I’m curious how this race ends and who drafts with who?


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)

Final 2 Playoff Spots

The goal for 35 of the 37 drivers in Sunday’s field is simple – just win. 14 drivers already have playoff spots locked up and can gain nothing outside of winning. There’s also a unique situation to where Corey LaJoie, Cody Ware, David Ragan, Landon Cassill, BJ McLeod and Noah Gragson could win but not make the playoffs too because none of those 6 drivers are in the top 30 in points and that’s a requirement to be playoff eligible as well.

Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Joey Logano, Austin Cindric, Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell join the list of 6 drivers above without thinking playoffs.

The other drivers are but for 13 of them, they’re only thinking win. They can’t make the playoffs unless the visit victory lane.

Which makes this situation very simple for 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 and Todd Gilliland. That’s it. A win puts them into the playoffs. If neither of them win, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex get by.

3 of the last 4 Daytona winners however earned their 1st career Cup Series victory. Furthermore, 3 of the last 4 Coke Zero Sugar 400’s were won by a 1st time winner. Go back to 2017 and all but 1 of these races were won by a driver earning their 1st or 2nd 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?

Truex and Blaney have to watch that. But they also have to points race too.

Blaney leads Truex Jr. by 25 points for the 15th playoff spot. 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 Sunday.

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).

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)

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.


DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 20: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Different Conditions Change Cars?

These crew members set these cars up for a night race. With this being an impound event and qualifying not even taking place, how much does the fact that this race will run during the day change what they brought?

It could make this event treacherous like it was in February. These cars are a handful on superspeedway’s in general but racing on a green track with a car setup to race at night under the lights in what could be the hot Florida sun could make this race won by the driver and crew chief whom can work and communicate the best to get their car dialed in to adapt with the conditions.


Hendrick Motorsports

Hendrick Motorsports is tied with the Wood Brothers for most Daytona wins in the NASCAR Cup Series. Each have 15. Both have also won those 15 races with 7 different drivers. However, HMS’ once dominance prowess has since cooled. They won 11 races between 1995 and 2015. In fact, 7 of those 11 occurred from July 2004 and July 2015. They’ve won this race 6 times.

Since 2016 though, they have just 1 win. What’s bizarre is, it’s not like they’ve not shown up down here without speed. They’ve arguably had the fastest cars off the truck. It’s just that they’ve not had race day speed to correlate with race day handling.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will share the front row for Sunday’s rain delayed Coke Zero Sugar 400 (10 a.m. ET, CNBC, MRN). Just 7 days ago, Elliott was perturbed on how Larson raced him at the end of last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen. The duo shared the front row then too but Larson topped Elliott on the final restart by making a move that pushed Elliott wide.

They had an organizational wide meeting on Monday. Everyone is saying the right things. Is the beef over? For now it seems like it and they’ll be starting next to each other when the sun rises on a new day in Florida on Sunday.

It’s actually the 4th straight HMS pole at Daytona and 12th in the last 16 tries on the high banked 2.5-mile Florida superspeedway. The only 4 poles they didn’t win was Greg Biffle (July 2016), Joey Logano (July 2019), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (February 2020) and Kevin Harvick (Aug. 2020). However, 2 of the 4 weren’t won on speed. Logano’s pole in 2019 was on points. Same for Harvick in 2020 as we didn’t qualify that year.

Can they help Hendrick Motorsports score just their 2nd win at the Daytona International Speedway in the last 13 races?


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)

Manufacturers

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?


Top Trends

  • The youngest Daytona summer race winner is Justin Haley (07/07/2019 – 20 years, 2 months, 9 days); all-time track record – Trevor Bayne (02/20/2011 – 20 years, 0 months, 1 day). The oldest Daytona summer race winner is Bobby Allison (07/04/1987 – 49 years, 7 months, 1 day); all-time track record – Bobby Allison (02/14/1988 – 50 years, 5 months, 23 days).
  • Five 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). Ryan Blaney is looking to become the 6th.
  • NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson leads the series in summer race victories at Daytona with five wins (1961, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1978).
  • 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.
  • Since the ‘Win and Your In’ format to the Playoffs was initiated in 2016, Erik Jones’ 2018 summer race win and William Byron in 2020 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).
  • For the Coke Zero Sugar 400, 3 of the last 5 winners have earned their first career Cup victories. 1 of the other 2 was just his second. For the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin has won three of the last 7 years but the other four 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).
  • A total of 22 drivers have posted their first NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona; 11 of the 22 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 2020 with William Byron. Does that bode well for Saturday night for someone on the outside looking in?
  • In the 9th 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.
    • In 2020, Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto and William Byron occupied the final 3 wildcard spots. All made it in with Byron winning the race.
    • In 2021, Tyler Reddick led Austin Dillon by 25 points. He advanced too.
  • Ford dominated this past February in taking the top 3 spots in every practice, qualifying race and the race itself.
  • 3 of the last 4 Daytona winners came from Row 3.
  • Each of the last 13 Daytona winners started 5th on back.
  • Only 1 Daytona pole winner has won here since 2011 (Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2016).
  • None of the last 11 points paying Daytona races were won by a series champion.
  • In both Stage 1s of Daytona/Talladega this year, the race winner didn’t score stage points in either of them.
  • In both Stage 2’s of Daytona/Talladega this year, the race winner was 6th (500), 9th (Talladega).
  • The race winner didn’t lead a lap at Daytona/Talladega until the final lap.
  • 3 of the last 4 Coke Zero Sugar 400’s the winner led 7 or fewer laps including 2 of the 3 leading just the final lap.
  • 5 of the last 7 years have seen a final pass for the win on the final lap in the Daytona 500.
  • There’s been 12 different winners in the last 12 Coke Zero Sugar 400’s.

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