When it comes to racing on the superspeedways, the sentiment has always been that if the engine cranks at the beginning of the race, then there is an opportunity to pull into victory lane at the end of the evening.
And, while everybody competing in the NASCAR Cup Series event at Daytona International Speedway would love to score a victory, there are 17 drivers in particular who are hopeful of that old adage proving true, in a way that could define their season.
Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 marks the regular-season finale for the NASCAR Cup Series, the culmination of a grueling schedule that began in early February, and has since featured just a single off-weekend.
Entering the last race of the regular season – at a speedway that has often provided tantalizing storylines and surprise winners – just 13 playoff-eligible drivers have scored a victory in the NASCAR Cup Series, leaving three post-season spots to be claimed via points.
Two of those three remaining spots are guaranteed to belong to Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, who entering Daytona occupy the sixth and 10th positions in regular-season points, respectively.
Those lock-ins, made official when William Byron scored his fifth win of 2023 at Watkins Glen, now leave just a single spot in the Playoffs to be claimed, which would be done either by a points battle between Bubba Wallace and Ty Gibbs, or a new playoff-eligible winner.
Entering Saturday’s 400-mile contest from Daytona, Wallace maintains a 32-point advantage over Toyota teammate Ty Gibbs, who is in his rookie season piloting the No. 54 for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Without a new playoff-eligible winner on Saturday, Wallace would officially clinch a berth into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with the accumulation of 24 points – equivalent to a 13th-place finish with no stage points – no matter what anybody else does.
Simply, Wallace needs to earn 24pts – between stages and race – in order to ensure he stays ahead of Ty Gibbs in points.
— Joseph Srigley (@joe_srigley) August 26, 2023
Wallace and Gibbs, the two drivers competing for the final post-season spot based on points, will start in fourth and fifth place, as the only two Toyota-backed drivers starting inside the top-10 for Saturday’s 160-lapper.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Should the chaos of superspeedway racing at Daytona spit out a winner that isn’t already qualified for the post-season, then the aforementioned points battle doesn’t matter.
There are an entire host of drivers, 15 to be exact, that have exactly one path to qualifying for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs: Winning the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
But that’s simple, right? Wrong. In fact, you likely have better odds of getting struck by lightning on a sunny day, while walking into a convenience store to claim your multi-million dollar lottery winnings.
The two biggest names entering Saturday’s regular-season finale at Daytona in a must-win situation are Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, teammates at Hendrick Motorsports who find themselves in similar circumstances.
Both Elliott (broken tibia) and Bowman (fractured vertebra) were sidelined from multiple NASCAR Cup Series events earlier this season, as a result of injuries sustained from off-track activities. Since returning, neither driver has broken through to victory lane.
“I hope it comes down to the two of us because that means one of us is going to get in — or one of us has a good shot of getting in if it’s he and I racing to line,” Elliott said about he and teammate Alex Bowman. “I hope that’s the case, for the sake of Hendrick Motorsports.”
Elliott, a native of Dawsonville, Georgia, has scored a pair of victories at Talladega Superspeedway – the sister track to Daytona – while Bowman was the sole Hendrick Motorsports driver to finish inside the top five in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“Alex [Bowman] and I typically work really well together on these tracks,” Elliott continued. “Ironically enough, we’re in a position where one of us is going to be left short. It’s part of racing. I’m looking forward to it, and I know he is too. We’ve talked about it a lot this week. We’re excited and ready to do battle.”
Chase Briscoe, the polesitter for Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, is another driver desperate to return to victory lane and lock himself into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, after what has been a turbulent season in the No. 14 Ford Mustang.
“It is a unique situation we’re in as a company,” Briscoe explained after winning the pole. “You look at Penske, for example, they’ve got all but one car in, so they can put all their focus trying to get Austin [Cindric] in the playoffs, where for us, we only have one car in, and three out.”
Similar to the situation over at Hendrick Motorsports, it isn’t just Briscoe who is entering Daytona in a must-win situation. Teammates Aric Almirola and Ryan Preece also find themselves in must-win situations, but will also start around Briscoe inside the top-10.
“Truthfully, we haven’t talked about it, to be honest with you,” Briscoe said in his post-qualifying press conference. “But, I do think all of us know with how our season has been, that if it comes down to two of us, we need to make sure at least one of us wins.”
“Now, we’re both going to be selfish – me and whoever, or whoever the two guys are – but we need to think big picture – the number of people that are back at Stewart-Haas that are relying on us to make the playoffs,” Briscoe continued. “So, if you’re gonna make a move or do something, you need to be 100 percent certain that at least a Stewart-Haas car wins because you don’t want to make a move and then us both get beat.”
Ryan Preece, the driver of the No. 41 Ford Mustang, seemed pretty optimistic about his chances in Saturday’s event at Daytona, in a performance that could possibly turn his entire season on its head.
“I think all of our cars were fast, so definitely pretty high confidence,” said Preece. “I know we’ve maxed everything we can for qualifying, so we can have a good starting spot, and hopefully keep that track position, because our plan is to race all day.”
“I think the biggest thing is you have to be aggressive, you gotta lead laps, gotta be upfront, gotta push, do all of those things to put yourself in a position to capitalize and our goal is to win this race, that’s it. It’s either victory lane, or do whatever bold move it takes.”
Despite being a former NASCAR Cup Series winner at Daytona, Justin Haley didn’t seem overly confident in his chances of breaking into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with a victory at Daytona.
That mindset doesn’t originate from a lack of speed in his Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, though, but rather the games that will likely be unfolding throughout the race, due to the current state of the post-season picture.
“You just need people to help you, and unfortunately every large organization has a car outside the playoffs. So, I’m not overly optimistic about tomorrow, just from the standpoint of who is going to help me. I don’t see anybody helping the No. 31 car,” Haley said.
“AJ [Allmendinger] needs to get in as well, so I don’t even have his support, and the package that this Cup car runs right now, it’s hard to make things happen on your own. So, even if we were leading at a green-white-checkered, I would find it hard to believe that anybody would push us, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try to execute and put ourselves in that position.”
In all of the build-up to Saturday’s 400-mile contest, one thing has become obvious – whoever had the idea to end the regular season at Daytona is absolutely unhinged, but deserves a massive pay raise.
While all of the bigger teams are playing mind games to try and win their way into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, let’s not forget about the guys laying in the weeds, who have the perfect opportunity to bring their underfunded teams to victory lane and the post-season.
Along with those already mentioned, Daniel Suarez, AJ Allmendinger, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie, Ty Dillon, Austin Dillon, Harrison Burton, and Erik Jones could all thrust themselves into contention for a playoff spot with the right move late in the race.