Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona Preview

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – 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.

While there is the battle for the race trophy, a much bigger prize is on the line for those that have yet to lock themselves into the Playoffs. Just one spot remains up for grabs, with Bubba Wallace currently holding onto the 16th and final Playoff berth by a slim 32-point margin.

Behind him is a snarling pack of drivers that must win on Saturday night or their chances at fighting for the championship are over.

Among those drivers is reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Ty Gibbs, along with perennial most popular driver and 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, who won five races last season, but is sitting on a goose egg in the win column following his absence for a leg injury early in the season.

Elliott is not the only Hendrick Motorsports driver still on the outside looking in as Alex Bowman is in the same boat needing a win following a return from injury earlier this year.

Others that need to win include former winners at Daytona, such as: Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Justin Haley, and Austin Cindric. Not to mention drivers that have run well on superspeedways previously like Corey LaJoie and AJ Allmendinger.

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, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 26 of 36

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

When: August 26, 2023

TV/Radio: NBC, 7:00 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 stage: 35 laps; Second stage: 60 laps; Final Stage: 65 laps

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 70 mph

2023 Daytona 500 Race Winner: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 47 Chevrolet (Started 31st, 10 laps led)

August 2022 Race Winner: Austin Dillon – No. 3 Chevrolet (Started 21st, 10 laps led)

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

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Daytona:

  1. Austin Cindric – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 94.4
  2. Kyle Busch – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 90.9
  3. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 89.2
  4. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 88.8
  5. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 84.0
  6. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 82.2
  7. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 79.6
  8. Bubba Wallace – No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota – 79.5
  9. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet – 79.5
  10. Brad Keselowski – No. 6 RFK Racing Ford – 79.2

From the Driver’s Seat

“Running Daytona in August is way different than February,” said Kyle Busch. “It’s just a hotter time of the year so the track is definitely slicker. You need to set up a little bit more for downforce for grip to make your car drive good on the long run. It’s still a drafting race, it’s still going to be close-knit, and tight action.

“Daytona being the final race of the regular season, man, it keeps that wild card opportunity open, so it really puts itself at a really good spot in the season. I liked the July 4th race there because you have the family, you go to the beach, you go do stuff together and then go race at night. Before we start moving around the final race of the regular season, I would say we should move around the final race of the championship and get it to different venues.”

Last Time at Daytona

Five years, seven months, 18 days.

That’s how long it had been since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. last tasted victory in the NASCAR Cup Series, but in February’s Daytona 500, he broke his winless streak in the most epic fashion, surviving double overtime to win the 65th running of the Great American Race.

Always a threat on the superspeedways, Stenhouse had been in position late in the running in NASCAR’s biggest race a number of times only to fall by the wayside for one reason or another, but this time around, he took the bull by the horns and made it happen.

As the laps wound down in regulation, it was shaping up to be a battle between the RFK Racing Fords and the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets, with Stenhouse and his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet lurking in the back half of the top-10 just trying to make a run materialize.

It didn’t seem that chance would come for the Olive Branch, Mississippi native until Daniel Suarez spun with three laps to go, sending the race into overtime. Then it was go time.

Lining up as the third car on the outside lane for the first overtime restart, Stenhouse lined up with Joey Logano to shove the two clear of Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon. Once clear, a push from Kyle Larson allowed Stenhouse to make a move on Logano heading into Turn 3 to take the lead for himself.

Three dirt-car veterans in Stenhouse, Larson, and Christopher Bell ran 1-2-3 when a crash broke out behind them to bring out the yellow once more and set up another overtime restart.

Stenhouse would have Logano in his rear-view mirror for the restart on the outside lane, with Larson and Bell on the inside lane. Kyle Busch and A.J. Allmendinger also lurked behind them, so it was still anyone’s race.

The No. 47 Chevrolet held the top spot at the white flag, but the advantage he had gained on his challengers was dwindling quickly as Logano, Busch, and Bubba Wallace were coming with a head of steam through the tri-oval.

By the time they reached Turn 1, it was the defending Cup Series champion that was up front in his No. 22 Ford as the field set off on the final lap.

Using a push from Bell, Stenhouse was able to pull even with Logano before Larson was turned sideways in the pack behind them to bring out the yellow and end the race.

The scoring pylon shifted between Logano and Stenhouse as the leader a number of times before it was determined that Stenhouse was out front at the time of caution, declaring him the winner.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, August 25

  • NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying (5:05 pm – USA Network)

Saturday, August 26

  • Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:00 pm – 160 laps, 400 miles – NBC)

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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.