The battle for the final NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot will take place at Daytona International Speedway. 15 drivers will have an opportunity, but only one will move on by either winning or securing enough points.
Ryan Blaney enters the weekend in the best position. He sits in the final transfer spot with a 25-point lead over Martin Truex Jr., who is also winless. Blaney is the defending winner of the Coke Zero Sugar 400, which was his third win of the 2021 season.
There are 14 drivers that could shake up the playoff picture by winning. This list includes Truex, Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell, Brad Keselowski, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon, Cole Custer, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Corey LaJoie could have stunned the Cup Series drivers with a win early in the season and a potential spot in the playoffs. However, he no longer sits top 30 in points, which is a requirement for full-time drivers trying to secure a spot in the Round of 16.
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Past Superspeedway Winners Will Create Conversations
Blaney will enter the weekend as a name to watch given his consistency throughout the 2022 season. He has also achieved success at NASCAR’s superspeedways with two wins at Talladega Superspeedway and one at Daytona International Speedway.
Blaney will not be the only winless driver with a past win at Daytona. Though he is the most recent. This list also includes Almirola (2014), Keselowski (2016), Stenhouse (2017), Dillon (2018 Daytona 500), Jones (2018), Haley (2019), and McDowell (2021 Daytona 500).
While Blaney has the most recent trip to Victory Lane at Daytona among the playoff-hopeful drivers, he does not have an abundance of confidence heading toward the superspeedway. He told FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass that he doesn’t control his own destiny at Daytona.
This answer could have created confusion, but Blaney has a point. Daytona breeds chaos, especially during the final stage. Take the 2021 Daytona 500 as an example. Joey Logano had the lead on the final lap with Keselowski just behind him. Ill-time contact wrecked both Team Penske drivers while McDowell moved from third into the lead. He held on as the caution flag waved, which helped him secure the first win of his career.
Blaney’s win in 2021 is another fitting example. He had the lead on the final lap as Kevin Harvick ran in second. However, a massive wreck unfolded that collected Harvick, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch, Corey LaJoie, Austin Dillon, Ross Chastain, and multiple others. Buescher finished second behind Blaney, but officials disqualified him after inspection. This moved Bubba Wallace up to second overall.
Teammates Could Play a Role
How will this regular-season finale play out? There is no clear answer, but there are some guarantees. For example, there will be multiple wrecks that collect playoff contenders. The last 11 races have featured at least six cautions.
Another guarantee is that drivers will have to work with each other to gain ground. These allegiances will include teammates and drivers for the same manufacturers. The second category will be crucial for Stenhouse, who does not have a teammate anymore.
What will be interesting is the decisions that certain drivers will make. If Denny Hamlin has an opportunity on the final lap to push either Truex or Wallace to the win, will he side with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate or his driver at 23XI Racing?
Similarly, will Austin Cindric and Joey Logano make a concerted effort to push Blaney to the win and get all three Team Penske cars into the playoffs? There are multiple scenarios that could play out on the track, which could also involve Dillon working with Tyler Reddick or the Kaulig Racing cars working together to get Haley into the playoffs.