Photo: Logan T. 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.

Two battles will be taking place on Saturday as Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin are set to duke it out for the regular season championship, while just one spot remains up for grabs in the Playoffs.

Of the drivers still looking to race their way in, Tyler Reddick has the safest margin, with a 25-point advantage over the cut-off line and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon. For the remainder of the drivers looking to make it in to the 16-driver Playoff field, the mission is simple: win or go home.

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.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Larson and William Byron will start on the front row, with a pair or Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in Denny Hamlin starting third and fourth. The remainder of the top-10 starters include Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, and Brad Keselowski.

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 28, 2021

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

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 70 mph

2021 Daytona 500 Race Winner: Michael McDowell – No. 34 Ford (Started 17th, One lap led)

August 2020 Race Winner: William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet (Started sixth, 24 laps 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 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 91.8
  2. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 89.7
  3. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 88.2
  4. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 85.8
  5. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 84.0
  6. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – 82.7
  7. Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 81.4
  8. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 79.0
  9. William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 78.7
  10. Austin Dillon – No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 78.6

NASCAR Cup Series Points Standings

Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell, and Aric Almirola have already locked themselves into the Playoffs with a win or by points.

The Playoff bubble heading into Daytona stands as follows:

  1. Tyler Reddick (+25)
  2. Austin Dillon (-25)

Either Reddick or Dillon could still clinch on points or a win, but everyone from 18th in points on down will have to win their way in, including: Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece, Cole Custer, Anthony Alfredo, and Corey LaJoie.

From the Driver’s Seat

“I think you’ll expect to see drivers that were as desperate as I was in that race to try and get up front and get control of the race and win for their team and all their partners,” Tyler Reddick said. “It’s just going to be a matter of trying to have an understanding in the back of your head or have a point that you kind of have within yourself. Like okay, this is my fun meter. If we can stay within, we’re good. If we go over here, etc.

“We’re trying to make the Playoffs, right? But we’re also trying to get tenth and get that extra point if we can, too. So, there are a lot of things around. We’re going to try and control what we can. Someone going in and winning that race in Daytona is something that we can’t really control unless we win that race. But it’s a tough spot to be in.”

“That gives the confidence to you as being the last race of the year,” Dillon added. “And the situation I am in right now, I think I’ve been in other situations down the road, it would probably be more stressful. But for me, we’re in a little bit of a nothing to lose attitude right now because we’ve got to gain on our teammate, and if not, we’ve got to win somehow.

“So, Daytona is that place and it gives us an opportunity with our ECR horsepower. I don’t know. We’ve just had the ability to keep that No. 3 at the front when we go to Daytona. I like it. It’s a magical place and I’ve had some great runs there. I’m pumped that it’s the last race of our regular season.”

Last Time at Daytona

A year removed from Ryan Newman’s harrowing crash in the 2020 edition of the Great American Race, carnage reigned supreme in the waning moments of February’s running of the Daytona 500.

With the Harley J. Earl trophy on the line, it was every man for himself on the final lap, as Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski ran 1-2 down the backstretch, with Michael McDowell in tow behind them.

As runs were beginning to build behind the top three drivers, McDowell gave Keselowski a shot to the rear bumper, with the shove giving him a boost of speed and a decision to make on how to try and get past his teammate in an effort to finally score a Daytona 500 win that has eluded him over the years.

Keselowski would wind up making contact with Logano heading into Turn 3, turning both his teammate and himself into the outside wall and setting off a fiery crash that involved eight cars when all was said and done. Aside from Logano and Keselowski, the others that were caught up in the melee included Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Chase Elliott, Ryan Preece, and Bubba Wallace.

McDowell was able to sneak through the chaos to take the win – his first in 357 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“How crazy is that? Yeah, you guys all know, it’s been a tough road for me,” McDowell said. “I’ve had to spend a lot of years grinding it out, but I finally have felt like this last four years have been — just been more competitive and greater opportunities with Front Row and Bob Jenkins. Daytona has been so good to us that we’ve been in the top 10, we’ve been in the top 5, we’ve been close. The last lap, there’s been times where I’ve made the wrong choice, wrong lane and pushed the wrong guy, and it’s just so hard to get in position and to do it, and to get my first Cup win at Daytona is just unbelievable.

“I’m just so thankful, thankful for everybody that just has allowed me to do it. It’s not been an easy road and there was lots of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it.

“I always knew that if you just kept grinding that one day everything will line up and it will go right. But as you get further into it, you just don’t know.

“So, I’m just thankful, very thankful to everybody that made it possible.”

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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.