By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Chase Briscoe enters the weekend in a must-win situation to stay alive in the battle for the final spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and decidedly struck the first blow on Friday by winning the pole for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
With a lap of 49.499 seconds, 181.822 mph, Briscoe scored his first pole of the season and first ever on a superspeedway ahead of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola, who is also in a must-win position on Saturday night.
“It’s exciting,” Briscoe said. “To be on the pole at Daytona is special no matter what car you’re driving. It’s cool for me to just be able to say that I’m leading the field to green in a Cup race at Daytona. That’s a pretty cool thing to be able to say, but it’s honestly just a testament to everybody at Stewart-Haas, all the men and women.
“It’s been no secret that it’s been a rough season for us and to have all four cars in the top 10 and to lock out the front row is super important for us and a good turning point, so hopefully one of those can win tomorrow. Hopefully, it’s me obviously, but really just a good day for the company to be able to bring that kind of speed.”
Rookie Harrison Burton, also needing a win to move into the Playoffs, will start third, followed by Bubba Wallace, and Ty Gibbs rounding out the top-five.
Riley Herbst, in a one-off for Front Row Motorsports, rolls off in sixth, with the remainder of the top-10 going to Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Ryan Preece, and Kevin Harvick.
A number of other drivers that likewise need to finish Saturday night in Victory Lane will have some work to do when the green flag drops.
Among those is Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger in 16th and 17th, respectively. Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, and Erik Jones slotted in from 21st to 24th. Justin Haley starts 28th, Alex Bowman is way back in 31st, and Corey LaJoie brings up the rear of the must-win drivers in 37th.
Denny Hamlin Addresses Contract Situation, Game Plan for Saturday
For the second year in a row, a Joe Gibbs Racing driver has gotten deep in the season without yet having signed a contract for the following season. Last year, it was Kyle Busch. This year, it’s Denny Hamlin.
While Busch wound up leaving the team for Richard Childress Racing, Hamlin is looking to stay right where he is and get his contract situation shored up sooner rather than later. In addition to his driving contract with JGR, the contract for his team 23XI Racing is also still being renegotiated with JGR, as well as the manufacturer contract between 23XI Racing and Toyota. All of which have bearing on each other.
“Nothing’s changed in the last seven days,” Hamlin said of the progress made. “I said from the beginning, I like where I’m at. I like all the relationships that we’ve formed over the last 18 years, and hopefully those remain the same.
Even though he has a lot on his plate off-track, Hamlin maintains that it is having no effect on his on-track performance as he and his team get ready for the Playoffs.
“It’s been a distraction for the last two months, but look at our results. The crazier shit gets the better off we go, but I’m gonna do my best to make sure that seven days from now, it’s a non-story and we can start to focus on what we’re doing in the future and what it’s gonna take to win a championship.”
Turning the focus back on the race ahead at Daytona, Hamlin is in a precarious position being a driver at JGR and the owner at 23XI Racing with drivers from each organization – Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace fighting for the final Playoff spot.
While some may see a tough decision ahead for a driver in the same position as Hamlin, he insists his mind is already made up on how the situation will play out if it comes to it on Saturday night.
“I kind of stated from the very beginning that the 11 car always comes first. I’ve never compromised any of my on-track position for racing my own,” Hamlin said.
“Certainly, it’s important to be a good leader for the team that I own. It’s also important to be a good teammate. I’m gonna work with both of them equally, but you know, right now, if I have to choose and they’re side by side coming the line — 0.1 chance that happens — then obviously, I’d probably lean to the 23.”
Stenhouse Returns to Daytona as Reigning 500 Champion
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. cemented his place in the 2023 Cup Series Playoffs and in NASCAR history when he won the season-opening Daytona 500. Six months later, he returns as the champion of the Great American Race as he looks to complete the season sweep and take some much-needed momentum into the Playoffs.
Ahead of climbing in his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet and turning some laps around the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Stenhouse had his hands and feet put in cement in the Daytona Walk of Fame to permanently secure his place in Daytona history.
“It’s been special,” Stenhouse said. “Going over to the museum and seeing the car in there, checking all the things out in there, was special. And then unveiling our Walk of Fame there out in front of the museum. This race is so big when you win the Daytona 500, and you do a lot of things throughout the season based off of winning this and it’s been fun.
“I’ve enjoyed every second of it – being able to promote our team, promote our win, promote the sport. For me, it doesn’t get old.
“It’s been nice to come in here and kind of take it all in – look around, walk through the garage. It was so chaotic after the race. You’re trying to celebrate. You’re trying to somewhat get some sleep knowing you have to get up the next morning early. So it’s been nice to kind of come in here, know that you’ve accomplished something great as a race team. Now that that’s over, we can try to get another one.”
While he’ll have his work cut out for him starting back in 32nd place, Stenhouse is ready for whatever race day brings.
“That’s what we’re here for is to be back in victory lane; get my second Summer race win here,” Stenhouse said. “For us, we’re looking at the playoff points that we could take to the playoffs – either by stage wins or obviously another five points winning the race. Those are the benefits that we can take out of Daytona and the things that we’re looking for. How we do that? I’m not sure yet…
“Just going to see how it plays out and kind of adjust our race lap-by-lap, stage-by-stage, and see where we shake out.”