DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — There’s sure to be high drama on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night. Maybe even more than usual.
Seventeen drivers — including Bubba Wallace, 2022 Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric and fan favorite Chase Elliott — will vie for the final spot in NASCAR’s Cup Series playoffs during the 400-mile race.
There’s no prohibitive favorite. And given the unpredictable nature of three-wide pack racing at nearly 200 mph, there’s no telling who will end up in victory lane. In three previous races with Daytona hosting the regular-season finale, William Byron (2020) and Austin Dillon (2022) won to eke out postseason spots.
“It’s definitely a nailbiter for the guys that are on that bubble, but it’s also a big opportunity for guys that are on the outside looking in,” said 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr., who missed the playoffs by three points last year at Daytona. “They have a chance in one of the biggest wild-card races of the year to shake things up and get into the playoffs, one last shot."
Wallace has a tenuous hold on the 16th and final playoff spot, carrying a 32-point advantage over Ty Gibbs into Daytona. Daniel Suárez is 43 points behind Wallace. The three Toyota drivers are the only ones who can get in on points.
“You don’t get to experience moments like this all the time,” Suárez said. "And when you do experience these moments, that’s really when you get to show what you’re built of.”
Fourteen others can knock out the Toyota trio by winning the Coke Zero Sugar 400. No one would be surprised to see it happen because the all-or-nothing group includes Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman, two guys who usually have speed at superspeedways, as well as former Daytona winners Cindric, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.
“Superspeedway racing is a high-speed chess match, and you have to make the right moves early to be there in the end,” said Almirola, who won the 2014 summer race at Daytona. “I think we have a great opportunity this weekend to catapult our way into the playoffs.”
Plenty of his competitors feel the same.
And they will have choices to make when the green flags drops. They can ride in the back in hopes of avoiding the chaos that typically comes with racing at Daytona or try to race to the front and potentially get ahead of the big one. Either way, it’s a calculated risk and sure to be costly for someone.
“I think I would be devastated if we didn’t make the playoffs,” Wallace said. “I hate that we haven’t had a win this year to lock ourselves in yet. … We’re still missing the fourth quarter, the final stage of the race, like getting that dialed in.
“Nothing’s guarantee. You got to go out and fight for it. I continue to say that, so we’re going to have to put it all on the line this weekend and get ourselves locked in.”
Fifteen drivers are locked into the 16-car playoff field: Truex, Denny Hamlin, Byron, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Chris Buescher, Ross Chastain, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick, defending series champion Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell.
Truex and Hamlin are the only ones who can win the regular-season championship Saturday. Byron has a series-leading five victories in 2023 and likely will enter the playoffs as the points leader.
Along with Wallace, Gibbs, Suárez, Elliott, Bowman, Cindric, Almirola, Jones, Haley and Austin Dillon, AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Preece, Chase Briscoe, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie and Ty Dillon can sneak into the playoffs with a win at Daytona. Elliott has the best odds of winning from this group; he's an 11-1 shot, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Logano and Blaney are the co-favorites at 10-1.
“No one is safe until the race is over with, and we’re hoping we can do everything right,” Wallace said.
Hendrick Motorsports has two drivers locked in (Byron, Larson) and two looking to get in (Elliott, Bowman). Elliott and Bowman might already be in had it not been for injuries earlier in the season.
Elliott missed six races after breaking his left leg in a snowboarding accident in early March. Bowman was sidelined three races while recovering from a back injury sustained during a rollover in a sprint car race.
“It just puts a little bit more pressure because of what is at stake," said four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, the vice chairman at Hendrick.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing