By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona will solidify the 16-driver NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field with varying strategies for those drivers that have yet to lock themselves in.
Currently, Ryan Blaney holds the 15th place position in points and has a 25-point advantage over Martin Truex, Jr. in 16th. For these two, the strategy will be two-fold on Saturday as they will be giving their best effort to win the race, but also will be trying to accumulate as many points as possible to stay ahead of the other.
Blaney’s situation is much more stable heading into the 160-lap event, and as the defending champion of the race, the Team Penske driver knows he’ll be in the mix throughout the night.
“I think our mindset is just race like normal,” Blaney said. “Honestly, you always want to go 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, you know, and think if you play conservative, you can find yourself in a bad spot at the end of the race.
“You know, if you just ride around the back, don’t get stage points, you can find yourself in a tough spot. So, I think our group does a really good job of just racing and trying to be up front and, you know, be there at the end of these things. So, you always want to race smart. I mean, doesn’t matter what spot you’re in. You want to race smart and I don’t really see us having any different mindset.”
Then there’s Truex, who has never won a race on a superspeedway, and will be hoping to kill two birds with one stone when the race ends, scratching a superspeedway win off his list and punching his ticket to the Playoffs.
If he is unable to win, he’ll have to hope he’s gained enough points throughout the night and a new driver, other than Blaney, isn’t celebrating in Victory Lane.
“We’re not in until it’s over,” Truex said. “I don’t really have any feelings either way. We’re here to race and excited and two scenarios, one we get in on points, or we win the race. That will be optimum because of the points situations. But yeah, we’ll see. You know, we just kind of how it all plays out and we can make our own way in there…
“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.”
On the other side of the coin are the wild cards, the drivers that haven’t yet won a race in 2022 and the equation is simple: Win or go home.
Among those drivers is Michael McDowell, 2021 Daytona 500 champion, who always seems to be a threat when the checkered flag is near on the superspeedways.
“I’m always confident coming into Daytona, feeling like we’ll have an opportunity and be in position,” McDowell said. “A lot can happen over the 400 miles [Saturday] night, but this is a great track for us. This is a great opportunity and we’ll see what happens.”
McDowell added that he will take lessons learned from the first two superspeedway races in the Next Gen car into Saturday night as he formulates his game plan for the race.
“Just because this car is so new, I don’t think we have it sorted out yet at the superspeedways in regards of knowing exactly what you need. Talladega, Daytona, those were all helpful in figuring out what the approach should be.
“At Daytona, I thought my car was pretty good. Went to Talladega with a bit different setup and different approach and my car was not good. Drove really bad. So, we have a few data points to build off of and hopefully hit it right and came up with the right solutions.”
Other drivers that could be a threat on Saturday night include Bubba Wallace, who finished second in the Daytona 500 this year and is consistently one of the front runners on the superspeedways. Wallace has mentioned in recent weeks that he has had this race circled as his opportunity to strike.
“It’s just making sure you’re there for the last, we always say five laps, but hell we wreck 10 times within five laps. So, make sure you’re there for the last two laps,” Wallace said. “Right? And setting yourself up for the being one of the first four cars. So that’s what we need to focus on. Let’s get up to that point. Let’s get through the first stage, check that box. Get through the second stage. Let’s check that box.
“And then, you know, your boxes get smaller. The job gets a little tougher because you have to last that whole last stage to get to where you’re at. And then you focus on, okay, now it’s time to win, but there’s just so much meat left on the bone before that.
“So, for me, it’s another race, you know? You can’t get over zealous with it, because it just humbles you so fast. Right? You know, you can be cocky or arrogant or hungry coming into it, but the sport has a way of busting your ass pretty quick.”
Roush Fenway Keselowski teammates Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher each won one of the Duels ahead of the Daytona 500 this season and could be primed for a big night on Saturday.
Buescher has been inching closer to a win over the recent weeks and Keselowski is a superspeedway master, so everything could very well roll RFK’s way.
“There’s really only one lap that matters to us here this weekend and it’s that last one. And being in the right spot on that last one,” Buescher said.
“At the same time, I’ve been a part of cruising around in the first stage, stage and a half, and saving your stuff. At the end of the day, that does not put you in the best chance to win the race. Drivers haven’t seen you up there all day. They don’t recognize you as a car that’s got speed. Or they just don’t respect the fact that you hung out in the back and didn’t participate for half the race.
“I think we’ve got to race. Whatever happens will happen that’s out of our control. We’ll control what we can and be there for that last lap and be in a good spot like we were here last year.”
“It goes without saying but this race is going to be wild,” Keselowski added. “I told the team that if I can be one of the last 10 cars left on the last restart, we’ll have a shot and that’s about all you can ask for, especially in this type of scenario. We know we have speed and feel really good about our chances, we just need everything to align to make it happen.”
Erik Jones has also run well on superspeedways in the past, and seemed poised to win at Talladega earlier this year before being bumper out of the lead on the last lap, fading to sixth at the finish. If there was ever a place to get his redemption, this weekend at Daytona is it.
“I feel good about it,” Jones said of his chances. “Winning here, it’s been a few years now, but I think our superspeedway program has been good this year. We were in contention at Talladega and we had a good car here in the 500 this year.
“It’s just going to be getting in position. This race is always more chaotic than the 500 it seems and even the Talladega races, so it’s just a matter of staying out of trouble and having an opportunity if you can. You’ve got to race and got to be up there to show guys you’ve got a quick car and build some allies through the race.
“I feel good. I think we’ll have a shot for sure. Speed-wise, we’ll have a shot.”
Last, but not least, is Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who has two superspeedway wins under his belt, including one at Daytona. Though he hasn’t visited Victory Lane since 2017, he’s stout on the superspeedways and will no doubt be among the challengers on Saturday night.
“I’ve got super high confidence,” Stenhouse said. “I feel really good about the car we’ve prepared, the work we’ve done, and really the position we put ourselves in last time we were here. Hopefully we can do all the same, continue to be at the front of this race, keep our track position getting down to the final few laps and see if we have a chance.
“I mean, we put ourselves leading within five or six to go last time and felt really good about that. So, hopefully we can do that again.”
In addition to these drivers, any of the other drivers that have yet to win a race in 2022 and are inside the top-30 in points have the opportunity to punch their ticket to the Playoffs.
The Coke Zero Sugar 400 is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET on NBC.