Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona Preview

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

The NASCAR Cup Series regular season comes to an end right where it all began back in February as Daytona International Speedway is set to host Saturday night’s running of the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

With three spots in the Playoffs still up for grabs, those drivers who have yet to lock themselves in will have to make it through the gauntlet at the World Center of Racing to punch their ticket into the postseason.

Of the drivers still looking to race their way in, Clint Bowyer has the safest margin, with a 57-point advantage over the cut-off line. The remainder of the drivers have slim, single-digit margins or will have to win in order to earn their place in the 16-driver Playoff field.

Throughout the history of the event, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 has provided countless memorable races, from Richard Petty winning his 200th race with President Ronald Reagan in attendance in 1984, to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. scoring his first win at the track in the first race back in Daytona after his father’s death in 2001, to photo finishes galore.

Given the unpredictable nature of racing at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Saturday night’s race will be must-see TV and will no doubt provide plenty of water cooler moments to discuss after the checkered flag falls.

By the Numbers

What: Coke Zero Sugar 400, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 26 of 36

Where: Daytona International Speedway – Daytona Beach, Florida (Opened: 1959)

When: August 29, 2020

TV/Radio: NBC, 7:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 2.5-mile tri-oval

Banking: 31 degrees in turns, 18 degrees in tri-oval, 6 degrees on straightaways

Race Length: 160 laps, 400 miles

Stage Lengths: First two stages: 50 laps each; Final Stage: 60 laps

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 70 mph

February 2020 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota (Started 21st, 79 laps led)

July 2019 Race Winner: Justin Haley – No. 77 Chevrolet (Started 34th, one lap led) 

Track Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott (42.783 seconds, 210.364 mph – 02/15/1987)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Daytona:

  1. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 90.7
  2. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 88.3
  3. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 87.4
  4. Matt Kenseth – No. 42 Chevrolet – 87.3
  5. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 87.1
  6. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 87.0
  7. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 86.8
  8. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 82.8
  9. William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet – 79.3
  10. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 78.7

NASCAR Cup Series Points Standings

Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer have already locked themselves into the Playoffs with a win or by points.

The Playoff bubble heading into Daytona stands as follows:

  1. Clint Bowyer (+57 over cut-off)
  2. Matt DiBenedetto (+9)
  3. William Byron (+4)
  4. Jimmie Johnson (-4)

The drivers above could still clinch on points or a win, but everyone from 18th in points (Erik Jones, who is 50 points in arrears) on down will have to win their way in, including: Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman, John Hunter Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, and Ryan Preece.

Should Daniel Suarez win on Saturday night, he will need some help to clinch a Playoff berth as he currently sits outside the top-30 in points heading into Daytona.

From the Driver’s Seat

Whatever way you look at it, no matter where we’re at, our approach isn’t going to change that much going into Daytona,” said William Byron. “You’re going to have to be aggressive in this race regardless of the situation by trying to get stage points and trying to win the race. We had a Duel win there earlier this year at Daytona, which is great. I absolutely think we can go there and be aggressive and win again. That doesn’t change after how Dover went.”

“Daytona is an accept-it-as-it-happens kind of place, which makes it a challenge. 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 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.”

Last Time at Daytona

Pushed to Monday, February’s running of the Daytona 500 ended with Denny Hamlin celebrating his second straight win in the Great American Race, but was almost a near tragedy when a violent crash in the final dash to the finish line sent Ryan Newman to the hospital.

With Newman leading on the final lap ahead of Ryan Blaney, a push from Blaney’s car sent Newman head-on into the outside wall, with his No. 6 car ricocheting back across the track after impacting the SAFER barrier before being struck at full speed by Corey Lajoie’s oncoming car. The impact from Lajoie, sent Newman airborne and upside-down before his demolished car came to a rest at the end of pit road.

Hamlin, who had been shuffled out of the lead by Newman and Blaney on the backstretch of the final lap, was able to sneak past the carnage to take the victory, but all attention was on Newman as the minutes agonizingly ticked by before he was able to be extracted from his car and immediately taken to the hospital.

A subdued Hamlin expressed his concern for Newman’s well-being in Victory Lane, as did other drivers in their post-race interviews, with many expecting the worst as a result of the severity of Newman’s crash.

In the hours that followed, NASCAR officials provided news that Newman’s injuries were not life threatening and just two days later, Newman proved just how tough he was when he was able to walk out of the hospital hand-in-hand with his daughters, allowing everyone in NASCAR nation to be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.