Column: A Lot On The Line For NASCAR Cup Series Drivers At Daytona This Weekend

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – As if competing on the furiously fast, high-banks of Daytona International Speedway wasn’t exciting enough.

The NASCAR Cup Series will be deciding its final slate of 16 Playoff drivers there in Saturday night’s regular season finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, formally secured the NASCAR Cup Series regular season championship last weekend at Dover International Speedway and 13 of the 16 Playoff positions are essentially locked in. Ten drivers have earned berths because of race victories – Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer.

Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch have earned enough points to secure their Playoff seats as well. That leaves three positions at stake in Saturday night’s race. Clint Bowyer is ranked 14th (+57 above the cutoff) and Matt DiBenedetto is ranked 15th in the points with a nine-point edge over 17th place Jimmie Johnson. Bowyer can clinch one of the three remaining spots in the Playoffs by scoring just three points this weekend.

William Byron, in 16th, holds only a four-point advantage in the final Playoff transfer position over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who is retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones is 50 points behind Byron. He earned his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory at Daytona in the 2018 summer 400-miler.

Beyond these drivers racing for their Playoff lives, Daytona always presents a unique opportunity. It’s famous style of high-speed, tightly-packed superspeedway racing could even mean a new winner not currently seen on the Playoff bubble.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is ranked 23rd, won at Daytona in the summer of 2017. Bubba Wallace is ranked 22nd in the championship standings, but the Richard Petty Motorsports driver finished runner-up in his very first NASCAR Cup Series start at the track, the 2018 Daytona 500.

NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Justin Haley, is the defending winner of the Coke Zero Sugar 400, taking his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in the rain-shortened Daytona race. Denny Hamlin won his third Daytona 500 in February but has never won the summer race.

There is a lot on the line in Saturday night’s race. And a long list of potential winners.

“I don’t’ know if it’s excitement, or anxious or what the emotion is, it’s definitely different going to Daytona with so much on the line,” said DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

DiBenedetto’s single-car Wood Brothers Racing Ford is part of the Team Penske alliance – meaning that he can count on Penske drivers Keselowski, Logano and Blaney as teammates. But even so, DiBenedetto conceded, “you can only plan so much” when competing on the unpredictable Daytona high banks.

“You can try to not put yourself in bad positions. It’s very tough to plan things at Daytona but I know we’ll work together very well.”

“Our attention is really focused on those guys we’re racing for a Playoff spot and also knowing there could be a surprise winner in there too,” DiBenedetto added. “Someone could jump into the Playoffs that’s outside of it now. Daytona as you know, is known for situations like that. There’s going to be a lot of variables.”

Among the threesome most closely contending for the three Playoff positions – DiBenedetto, Byron and Johnson – Johnson is the only former NASCAR Cup Series winner at Daytona. The soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Famer won the pole position for the Daytona 500 in his very first series race at the track in 2002. He won his first Daytona 500 in 2006 and turned in a rare Daytona sweep in 2013 winning both the Daytona 500 and summer 400-miler.

DiBenedetto has three top-10 finishes in 10 starts, including a career-best Daytona showing (seventh) in the 2018 July race and an eighth place in last year’s 400-miler. The 22-year old Byron won the pole for the 2019 Daytona 500, but his only top-20 finish is a runner-up in the 2019 summer race. He has three DNFs in five Daytona NASCAR Cup Series starts.

Byron does have a win at Daytona – the 2017 July NASCAR Xfinity Series race. And the crew chief of his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is Chad Knaus, the same crew chief who led Johnson to seven series championships and that 2013 Daytona sweep.

“Daytona is an accept-it-as-it-happens kind of place, which makes it a challenge,” Byron said. “You have to go in expecting that things aren’t going to go your way, and hopefully they do.

“It’s one of those things that you have to go in with low expectations, try to race as hard as you can and hopefully you come out on the good side of things. No one knows exactly what to expect but I am excited and hopeful that we’ll have a good run.”

Johnson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels said Thursday that the team’s strategy is obviously to go for every point available – including earning those in the race’s early stages as well as being in position to go for the race win later.

“We’ve got to maximize everything. No excuses, it’s time to execute, put the best car on track and hopefully have a little luck on our side at the speedway race and just go fight it out to the end,” Daniels said.

Xfinity Series returns to Daytona

While the NASCAR Xfinity Series still has five races remaining to set its 2020 12-driver Playoff field, judging by the intensity of recent races, there is already a concerted effort to establish championship favorites. And with the highly-competitive nature of this season, in particular, there may well be some new names among the title eligible before that first Playoff race on Sept. 26 in Las Vegas.

Friday night’s WAWA 250 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) sets up as a legitimate championship wildcard race. The last three Daytona Xfinity Series race winners – Noah Gragson, Ross Chastain and Michael Annett – are all currently Playoff eligible either by wins (Gragson) or points (Chastain and Annett).

The tightest battle among those contending for a points position into the Playoffs is that 12th and final spot currently held by Brandon Brown. He holds a 31-point edge on Jeremy Clements and a 58-point advantage on Myatt Snider.

This race has an interesting history – albeit its previous position on the schedule was a steamy July night held on the annual Independence Day Weekend NASCAR Cup Series race. Chevrolet drivers have won the last six Daytona Xfinity Series races. And three of the last four winners also led the most race laps. Gragson’s overtime win in February is the exception in that time.

Among those three currently vying for that 12th and final Playoff points transfer position, Brown boasts a pair of top-10 finishes in five starts with a career-best sixth place in last summer’s race answered with a seventh place this February. Clements has the most starts among the trio, but has scored only two top-10s in those 20 races. His best ever – eighth place – came in this race last year. Snider has only one start, winning the pole position in February’s season-opener but finishing 33rd after a mid-race accident.

Defending race winner Chastain is the highest ranked driver (eighth) among the present championship field still looking for their first victory of 2020. The Florida native has six top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Daytona. But his best work has come most recently. He scored the win last July – the Kaulig organization’s first – and has led 72 of his career total 75 laps at the track in the last three races there. He was 22nd in February.

“This was the site of our first victory (at Daytona), both for myself and in the team’s history last year,” Chastain said. “I’m looking forward to it again.

“Kaulig Racing always brings super-fast speedway cars. It’s incredible. It’s unlike anything that many of the drivers, including myself, have ever driven. We’re able to be really aggressive and we’re also able to work together as you saw at Talladega (Superspeedway), which is a similar package. It took all three of the Kaulig Racing cars to work together to push Justin Haley to the win (at Talladega). We want to do the same thing.”

Among the championship leaders, Chase Briscoe – who picked up his series-best sixth win at Dover International Speedway two weeks ago – earned his best Daytona finish in February, finishing fifth. Austin Cindric, who earned his fifth win of the season at the Daytona road course two weeks ago and leads the championship by 62 points over Briscoe, has two top-10s in five Daytona oval starts. His best work in the summer race is fourth. He crashed in the 2020 Daytona season opener.

Gragson’s win in February is his only top-10 finish in three Daytona Xfinity starts. Jeb Burton actually led the most laps (26) in the season opener but was involved in an accident up front at the end of the race.

Gander Trucks head to Gateway

Only three races remain to set the 2020 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series 10-driver Playoff field and as the standings sit now, there are three drivers contending for just two spots on points. Of course a new winner in Sunday’s CarShield 200 Presented by CK Power at Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway (12 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could change things dramatically.

And drama has been a consistent theme this season – with first-time winners, potential new championship challengers and a hearty mix of veteran winners as well.

This week marks the grand finale of the popular Triple Truck Challenge – a three-race midseason incentive for fulltime competitors. Sheldon Creed won a $50,000 bonus for taking the victory on the Daytona International Speedway Road Course on Aug. 16 and Zane Smith got a $50,000 check for winning last week at Dover – the first two events for the challenge.

Should either Creed of Smith win Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, they would score an extra $50,000 – a total of $150,000 for winning two of the three races. A new winner this weekend earns an extra $50,000.

That money will be important, but so will the winner’s trophy which could represent an automatic ticket into the 2020 Playoffs.

Young drivers Tyler Ankrum, 19, Todd Gilliland, 20, and 18-year old Derek Kraus are currently vying for the last two Playoff positions. Ankrum, driver of the No. 26 GMS Racing Chevrolet, is in ninth place with a five-point edge on 11th place Derek Kraus. Gilliland, who drives the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, trails Ankrum by one-point and is four points ahead of Kraus, driver of the No. 19 McAnally-Hilgemann Racing Toyota.

Gilliland and Kraus bring an impressive statistical resume to the track – good not only for their Playoff hopes, but notable in general. Gilliland has finished runner-up in two of his three Gateway starts (2018 and 2019). Kraus will be making his truck series debut this weekend, but he’s celebrated in Victory Lane already, with a 2018 win in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race there and a runner-up in it last year.

Ankrum’s only NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series start was a 30th-place finish last year driving for a different team.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Kraus said. “I’ve had really good runs there in the past. So, I’m very comfortable there. I know everyone at MHR is working really hard. So I’m really excited to get to the track.”

This highly-motivated trio can expect the field to keep them all honest, however. Last week’s Dover, Del. winner Zane Smith, 21, who has won two of the last three races, has only one start at Gateway, finishing fifth. Championship points leader Austin Hill, 26, has posted a series best 11 top-10 finishes in the 2020 season’s 13 races, but he’s never finished top-10 at Gateway. His best is 11th place in both 2018 and 2019. Christian Eckes, 19, who is solidly in the Playoff field on points, led the most laps (57) in last year’s Gateway race but finished 14th in his debut there.

They all face a legitimately tough challenge from veterans such as Johnny Sauter and Stewart Friesen who are typically odds-on Playoff contenders. This year, however, both sit well behind the close points battle and most likely will need a victory to earn their shot at the season trophy.

Sauter, the 2016 series champion and driver of the No. 13 ThorSport Racing Ford, is ranked 13th, 71 points behind 10th place Gilliland. He has top-five finishes in all seven of his starts at the Gateway track, however, scoring a runner-up finish in 2009 and third-place finishes in his last two starts there in 2017 and 2018. He served a one-race suspension last year and did not compete at Gateway.

Friesen, 37, a first-time Playoff qualifier last year with 16 top-10 and 12 top-five finishes in 2019, has only a single top five this season and is ranked 15th – 97 points behind 10th place Gilliland. He finished third at Gateway last year, however, leading 20 laps.