Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images via NASCAR

Win or Go Home: Battle for Final Playoff Spot Comes Down to Daytona

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This is it. One final race to decide which driver will capture the final spot for the 2023 edition of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Heading into Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, Bubba Wallace holds onto the final spot with a 32-point advantage over the cut-off line just ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing driver Ty Gibbs.

Along with Gibbs, there are numerous other drivers that are in must-win positions to be able to overtake Wallace in the standings and claim the 16th and final Playoff berth for themselves. Win and you’re in. If you don’t, for all intents and purposes, your season is over.

“Everyone is in a must-win situation,” Wallace said heading into Saturday night. “If you’re not locked in, you’re in a must-win situation. The last race is Daytona, and we’ve seen surprise winners. 

“No one is safe until the race is over with. We’re hoping we can do everything right, continue to get stage points. And if there’s a new winner, it has to be the 23 car—other than that, everyone is fighting for the same real estate.” 

Of those needing a win, the driver that least expected to be in this position when the season started was 2020 champion Chase Elliott, who was coming off a five-win season in 2022. However, when a snowboarding injury kept him on the sidelines during the early portion of the season and he was suspended for another race, his path to the Playoffs became much harder.

Though Elliott made a charge to within striking distance of pointing his way in, recent struggles have left him needing a win to make it into the Playoffs. He’ll have his work cut out for him though starting back in 23rd position.

Despite being in the situation he finds himself in Elliott shouldered the blame, noting it was his injury that started the team down the path it’s currently on and whether or not he makes it in, he’s still proud of the effort thus far.

“I don’t want to make excuses, you know, the situation sucks. Absolutely,” said Elliott. “You know, it’s my fault to begin with, right? So, I’m not gonna sit here and complain about it. It was a situation that I got us in back in March and my objective when that happened was just to hit it head on and try to show up every week and do the best job that I can do and continue to make sure I’m pulling my weight for our team outside of that.

“Like, you know, what good is me focusing on anything other than that doing in my opinion, it’s not. So, I’ve just tried to keep my eyes focused on those items. Granted we haven’t got to Victory Lane to this point. I’m still proud of the work that we put in and, and I think there’s better days ahead.”

While the focus will certainly be on Elliott and whether or not he will miss out on the Playoffs, there are still many others that will be doing their best to be the last man standing on Saturday night.

The other Chase – Chase Briscoe – is among those needing a win, along with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola. The two drivers made it known they’re here to fight by locking out the front row in qualifying.

“I’m definitely going to be super aggressive all day and try to keep my track position up front and make them beat me,” Briscoe said of his game plan after winning the pole. “Starting on the front row it definitely makes it a little bit easier from the sense you’re not coming from behind from the get-go. 

“Having Aric up there and all four Stewart-Haas cars in the top 10 and I think we had 9 of the top 12 Fords. That’s huge, especially being the pole-sitter. Hopefully, I can use all of that to my advantage and hopefully be there at the end and that’s when it pays the most at the end, not lap 1 or lap 100, it’s the last lap so we’ve got to be there at the end.”

Almirola has had superspeedway success in the past, winning races at both Talladega and the summer race at Daytona, so he knows how to get things done and is going into Saturday with the mindset to make a return to Victory Lane.

“The mindset is, gotta win,” Almirola said. “You know, there’s really nothing else that matters. Going out there [Saturday] night and laying it all on the line and trying to do whatever it takes to find our car in Victory Lane at the end of the race.

“I feel like we have a great opportunity to do it. I don’t know if that will happen, but I’m certainly optimistic. I know we’re gonna have a fast race car. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of luck and being in the right place at the right time.

“You go back and look at these races over the years and you see guys that won that throughout the course of the race, caught lucky breaks and things went their way. So, certainly gonna have to have that go our way.”

Another pair of teammates in the Kaulig Racing stable – Justin Haley and AJ Allmendinger – also need to win on Saturday night, but the two drivers have different thoughts on how things will play out.

Starting 17th, Allmendinger is taking a more positive approach, joking about his love of superspeedway racing and the fact that anything can happen on these type of tracks.

“You just know that races like this are — especially with the situation we’re in — we’ve gotta go out there and just play it all on the line,” Allmendinger said. “And we know what that means sometimes when you have to do that and the consequences that you have to face. But it’s just part of the way this racing is. That’s why I love superspeedway racing (laughs).

“It does give me optimism that we’ve run so well. And then, you know, I have confidence in myself that when it’s time to be there at the end we’ve shown that, we’ve put ourselves in that position at least to go out there and give yourself a chance to win.

“Is it optimistic of it working out? Like, I don’t think I ever have a lot of optimism at super speedways that it’s gonna truly work out. But I feel like we have fast enough race cars at Kaulig Racing and as much as I don’t like it, I still feel like I know how to kind of get up front and try to make it work.”

Meanwhile, Haley is not quite as optimistic of his team’s chances noting the sheer number of fellow Chevrolet drivers that need to win to get in, thinning the resources for his team to be able to pull from to help them toward the front from their 28th place starting position when the green flag drops.

“You just need people to help you and unfortunately, every large organization has a car outside the Playoffs,” Haley said. “So I’m not overly optimistic about [Saturday] just from the standpoint of who’s gonna help me. You know, like, I don’t see anyone helping the 31 car. AJ needs to get in as well, so I don’t even have his support.

“The package that this Cup car is right now, it’s hard to make things happen on your own. So, even if we were leading it at a green, white checkered, I would find it hard to believe anyone would push us, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t try to execute and put ourselves in that position.

“I just think that with the way the Playoffs are right now and all the major organizations all having a car out of the Playoffs, it’s gonna be tough to find someone to work with. So, we’ll give it our all and we’ll see. But yeah, I don’t know.”

Even drivers that have had enjoyed success at the highest levels at Daytona know that is no guarantee on Saturday. Just ask Austin Cindric, the 2022 champion of the Daytona 500.

“Past success doesn’t equal future success,” Cindric said. “The game’s changed a lot since the last time, but yeah, absolutely put me in position, you know, I’ve been able to do it once. There’s no reason why we can’t do it again.”

Regardless of how Saturday night turns out and who comes away with the last Playoff spot, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 will certainly be must-see TV, with the 160-lap race scheduled for 7:00 pm ET on 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.