Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

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 two spots remain up for grabs after Kurt Busch dropped out of the running on Thursday.

Of the drivers still looking to race their way in, Ryan Blaney has the safest margin, with a 25-point advantage over Martin Truex, Jr., who currently holds the 16th and final spot in the postseason.

Behind Blaney and Truex is the rest of the field that has yet to win a race in 2022, all looking to cross the line first on Saturday night and knock out whoever sits in 16th place. For these drivers, the equation is simple, either win or go home.

Among those drivers are some superspeedway heavy hitters, including Bubba Wallace, Michael McDowell, Brad Keselowski, Chris Buescher, and others.

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.

After rain washed out qualifying, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will start on the front row, days after their run-in in the closing laps at Watkins Glen. Joey Logano will start third, followed by Daniel Suarez in fourth, and Christopher Bell in fifth. The remainder of the top-10 starters will Tyler Reddick, Kevin Harvick, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell, and Alex Bowman.

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 27, 2022

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

2022 Daytona 500 Race Winner: Austin Cindric – No. 2 Ford (Started fifth, 21 laps led)

August 2021 Race Winner: Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Chevrolet (Started sixth, seven 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 – 107.0
  2. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 92.2
  3. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 88.8
  4. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 87.9
  5. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 86.4
  6. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 82.1
  7. Bubba Wallace – No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota – 81.5
  8. Brad Keselowski – No. 6 Roush Fenway Keselowski Ford – 80.0
  9. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 79.8
  10. Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 79.4

From the Driver’s Seat

“It’s tough. It’s a game of putting yourself in position,” said Austin Dillon. “I call it high-speed chess because you know at some point in time you’re going to be vulnerable. You hope that someone doesn’t take advantage of that too much and cause a big wreck. It’s one of those things where you are constantly moving and trying to guess the flow of the pack.

“I think the best place to be is in the front most of the time, but it’s impossible now with the way we race to keep yourself up there for the entire race. You see guys do it for long periods of time. Denny Hamlin has been pretty amazing at putting himself in the right position as of late. I’m going to do my best this time around to put ourselves in position.”

Last Time at Daytona

Austin Cindric once asked Mario Andretti if he had any advice for the Team Penske rookie and the legendary driver had just six words for him.

“Whatever you do, stand on it.”

If Cindric’s performance in the 2022 running of the Daytona 500 is any indication, the newest driver to climb behind the wheel of the No. 2 Ford took those words to heart, streaking across the finish line first to claim not only his first NASCAR Cup Series win, but also the biggest race in all of stock car racing.

Fresh off a near-miss in last year’s Xfinity Series championship and a fiery crash in the 2021 Daytona 500, Cindric came into the day ready for redemption.

Despite a misstep with Chase Briscoe on lap 42, Cindric was able to keep his nose clean for the majority of the race, ascending to the lead for the first time on lap 157. After trading the top spot with Bubba Wallace back and forth for the next 20 laps, Cindric found himself dropped from the lead with the finish drawing nearer.

A crash inside of five laps to go would push the race into overtime, giving Cindric the chance he needed to make it happen.

With a push from teammate Ryan Blaney, the two Team Penske drivers were content on settling the Great American Race between themselves, but which one of them would blink first?

Coming off Turn 4 for the final time, Cindric remained in the lead, while Blaney attempted a swift move around the high side to beat him back to the line. Before Blaney could move alongside, Cindric moved up to block, arresting Blaney’s momentum, but giving third-place driver Bubba Wallace the low lane to try and out-run him to the finish.

However, Cindric was able to cross the finish line first to score the win on NASCAR’s biggest stage, a half a car-length ahead of Wallace. Redemption achieved.

“Oh, my God. Do you know what makes it all better? A packed house. A packed house at the Daytona 500,” Cindric exclaimed.

“I’ve got so many people to thank. First and foremost, Roger Penske, happy birthday. Oh, my gosh. Appreciate Ryan being a great teammate. Obviously, he wants to win this one, but I’m so pumped for Discount Tire, Menards, Ford. Everybody works so hard with this Next-Gen car, through this whole process, and damn, I am so excited.

“This makes up for losing a championship last race I did.”

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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.