After a fiery Watkins Glen race where we saw wet weather racing, strategy, and an excellent finish, we looked toward the last race of the regular Cup season, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway. Chase Elliot has already won the regular season championship, and congratulations are in order. However, the last playoff spot is still up for grabs, and it may be two playoff spots if Kurt Busch cannot recover before Darlington. Kurt Busch does have a playoff waiver due to his concussion from a qualifying crash at Pocono; however, if Kurt bows out of the playoffs, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr will be in the playoffs by points. If Kurt competes in the playoffs, then one playoff spot is left. As I said last week, Daytona is a risky place to hinge your playoffs on. Why do
I keep saying this; let me explain. Daytona is a massive track: two and a half miles of on-the-limit pack racing, 40 cars within two seconds of each other, all jostling around within inches of each other, where one bad move could end many drivers’ races, including yours. It is a race anybody can win, where the backmarkers can have their day and snag a win; plenty can happen at Daytona, plenty can go in your favor, and just as many can go against it. The guys that are locked into the playoffs are fine; there is no pressure on them to win or get enough points to get into the show; they can hang back; however, the bubble drivers do not have that luxury. One wreck, one bad pitstop, or bad track position can keep them from the playoffs, and all of the first twenty-six races would be all for not.
If Kurt Busch still makes the playoffs, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Blaney are the best options for the sixteenth position. Both have been consistent all year but have not made it to victory lane. Blaney has the speed on the superspeedways to be a threat this Sunday, which could be why he is waiting until the last second. He finished fourth in the Daytona 500 in February, ran up front all day, and was a favorite to win; realistically, he is the best choice to get in now. On the flip side, Truex is at the end of the rope. He is good at the superspeedways and could luck into a win, but his odds are low. Ford and Chevrolet have a massive numbers advantage against the Toyotas (6 Toyotas, ~15 Chevrolets, and ~15 Fords). Joe Gibbs and 23XI have team synergy, meaning they try to stick together and work themselves up to the front. However, Ford has pure speed in the race, and Chevrolet has pure single-car speed, and when you put a few Fords and a few Chevys together, the Toyotas cannot compete. Truex’s best shot at getting in was at Richmond and Watkins Glen, but he did not get it done, and I fear that Truex will not make the playoffs looking at the current playoff grid.
We have been eagerly watching for a few months to see what will happen to Kyle Busch: will he stay or go? In other news, it has been reported that Kyle Busch is out at Joe Gibbs. Well, reportedly, Kyle will not be with Joe Gibbs for 2023. A few theories have sprouted since we knew Busch was exploring other teams, some have said Stewart-Hass’ #10 car, but with Almirola hinting at driving next year, that seems unlikely for Busch. Some have said Kaulig Racing, which is still a possibility. Regardless, this is silly season news, and we must keep our eyes and ears open to any official announcement.
To close out our preview for this week, I will give you my picks to watch for at Daytona. I did not get any right for last week, but you cannot always be right. Daytona is hard to pick winners for since it is a lottery on who will win, so I will do my best to give three drivers. First is Ryan Blaney; he has been a favorite to win on superspeedways his entire career. The kid has a knack for it. With him in the playoffs by virtue of points, he might be looking to snag a few more points or even win the race to ensure a playoff appearance. Look for him to show up at Daytona this Sunday. Second is Alex Bowman; while he has not been flashy this year with only one win, Daytona and the other superspeedways seem to be his wheelhouse. He is always a threat to win when pack racing is brought up. I expect him to qualify inside the top 5 or even pole and be a front runner all day long; watch for him Sunday.
Third is Bubba Wallace; not a real stretch with this pick, Bubba can wheel a race car around the big tracks. You will see upfront mixing it up with some of the best in the business. Anything can happen at these tracks. I can see Bubba doing well on track Sunday. Fourth is Aric Almirola; he is more of a long shot than most, but with on the outside looking into the playoffs, he might be looking to work a little bit harder this week and snag a win out from under everyone. With him hinting at a possible return, he might be lucky Sunday. Finally, the fifth pick is Kyle Busch, he only has one win this year, which could be attributed to contract talks. Daytona is not his strongest track, but if the reports are true, Kyle might have the motivation to go out and win as a statement to other teams that are interested in him.
There is plenty to watch for this Sunday, lots of storylines to keep track of, and plenty of racing to watch. Who will get into the playoffs, and whose season will go bust? Tune in to USA on Friday, the 26th of August at 7:30 pm to see the Xfinity teams battle out on the high banks and then tune into NBC Saturday, August 27th at 7:00 pm to watch the Cup series finish up their regular season. Let’s go racing!