28 weeks ago, the NASCAR Cup Series began its trek toward the playoffs with a rain-soaked, harrowing thrill ride of a Daytona 500 that saw one driver seal a playoff berth and another nearly have his own fate sealed.
Now, 28 weeks and a world of change later, 12 other drivers have locked in a playoff berth and another 18 drivers will vie for three remaining berths during the regular season-ending Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin is looking to join Jimmie Johnson as being one of two drivers since 1983 to sweep the Daytona 500 and Coke Zero Sugar 400 races in the same season. While the urgency to win isn’t as great for Hamlin as it is for Johnson, Hamlin has the potential to tie close competitor in wins (7) while padding his advantage over fifth-seeded Joey Logano, from 27 points to 32, to start the playoffs. Hamlin and Harvick have been locked in a close battle all season long and any advantage one can over each other is important, even if it is only symbolically.
For Johnson, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 will be his last chance to secure one last hurrah in the ten-race playoffs that has defined his illustrious career. Despite being four points behind teammate William Byron, who holds the final playoff berth, Johnson has had playoffs-worthy success this season. Johnson has scored four top 5s, nine top 10s, an average finish of 15.3 and 102 laps led. In terms of top 5s and top 10s, that puts Johnson ahead of the four drivers in front of him in points (Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman, Matt DiBenedetto and William Byron) and, within Hendrick Motorsports, puts him second only to Chase Elliott, in terms of top 5s, top 10s, and average finish.
Still, Johnson enters Daytona fighting for his season, which can largely be attributed to a post-race tech inspection failure in the Coca-Cola 600 that dropped him from receiving points for a second-place finish to receiving points for a last-place finish, a 34 point loss. Johnson would be 30 to the good for the playoffs, had things worked out okay then, but that is of little worry to Johnson considering the momentum he carries into Saturday night’s race.
In the last six races, Johnson has finished no worse than 12th and has finished in the top 10 during the last three races. Johnson has had recent success on the high-banked superspeedway tracks, being in contention to win the June 22 GEICO 500 at Talladega, Daytona’s sister track, before spinning with two laps to go. When the race gets to its final laps, Johnson’s strategy may help prevent a situation like that from happening, as his strategy will include helping teammate William Byron throughout the race according to crew chief Cliff Daniels. The elephant in the room of HMS’s chances of getting all four cars in the playoffs, however, is sentimental favorite Matt DiBenedetto.
DiBenedetto sits 15th in the playoff standings, nine points ahead of Johnson and five points ahead of Byron. DiBenedetto has had his best year yet with seven top 10s, a 15.3 average finish and a playoff berth, as of now, all being career-high marks for the driver of the Wood Brothers Racing no. 21 Ford.
Even with as good as DiBenedetto has been in 2020, his performance has also regressed recently. DiBenedetto finished 15th at the Daytona Road Course, 20th in the first Dover race and 17th in the second Dover race, only scoring ten stage points in that time. In comparison, Byron scored 13 stage points in the second Dover race, alone, and Johnson scored 12 stage points between the two Dover races. Mediocre finishes and a lack of stage points has allowed Byron to gain 27 points on DiBenedetto in the last three races and allowed Johnson to gain 48 points on DiBenedetto in that same time.
For DiBenedetto, Daytona has been a hit-or-miss track for him recently. In the last three Daytona 500s, DiBenedetto has been in contention for the win late before being crashed out of contention late. However, in the last two Coke Zero Sugar 400s, DiBenedetto has finished eighth in 2019 and seventh in 2018.
DiBenedetto will need to do better than he did in the June 22 GEICO 500 at Talladega, however. DiBenedetto had an average running position of 16th throughout the race with no stage points scored, while Byron had an average running position of 12th and two stage points scored, and Johnson had an average running position of 10th and seven stage points scored. In this hypothetical situation, Johnson and Byron would make the playoffs, while DiBenedetto would miss by just one point.
DiBenedetto may have a fight on his hands Saturday night but the hypothetical situation outlines how if DiBenedetto keeps the HMS drivers very closely within his sights throughout the race, and even beats them in the stages and the race, that fight may get easier.
DiBenedetto starts 15th while Byron starts sixth and Johnson in seventh, which would hypothetically put DiBenedetto in the playoffs by one point, before any stage points are factored in.
While a number of scenarios could work out between just DiBenedetto, Byron and Johnson, Erik Jones could spoil everything for them if they run into early trouble. Jones is 55 points behind DiBenedetto, 50 behind Byron and 46 behind Johnson. If those three drivers were to have issues taking them out of any stage points and a good finish, while Jones acrrues enough stage points and has a good enough finish, then it may be four JGR cars in the playoffs with the possibility of two HMS cars missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
Jones starts 20th but with the current Cup superspeedway package and him being the 2018 winner of the race, it is unlikely he will stay there for very long.
Between those four drivers, a whole world of possible scenarios could work out between those four and the 14 others behind them who are eligible for the playoffs with a win.
The most potent contender of those 14 is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who, in the last six Daytona races, has scored the most points (179) and led the third-most laps (121) of any other driver. Stenhouse also holds the record for the all-time best average finish of any driver (minimum six starts) at Talladega, with a 10.9 scored in 14 starts there.
Stenhouse has been historically good at superspeedway tracks, but he has been good at these tracks this year alone. Despite finishing 20th in the Daytona 500, Stenhouse started on the pole, led 24 laps and scored 12 stage points. In the GEICO 500, Stenhouse led five laps and won stage two, which netted him ten stage points, but finished second, just 0.007 seconds away from not having to wait until Saturday night to secure a playoff berth.
Stenhouse can run well at superspeedways — that is a given — but the true test will be if he can win, which is going to be the only way he gets into the playoffs for the second time in his career. Doing so would not only mean a playoff berth and the end to a six-year ommission from the playoffs for Kroger JTG-Daugherty Racing, but also the end to a 116-race winless streak for Stenhouse, who starts 31st.
Looking through the field, three drivers stand out as possible popular winners who could upset the playoff field: Bubba Wallace, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman. All three drivers start close to each other with Kenseth starting 19th, Wallace starting 21st and Newman starting 22nd.
For Newman, a win Saturday night would be particularly special and serve as redemption for one of the most heartbreaking losses in recent memory. Exiting turn four in this year’s Daytona 500, Newman was out in front and about to earn his second Daytona 500 win, which would’ve locked him into the playoffs, when a bad bump from Ryan Blaney accidentally sent Newman spinning into the wall in a wreck that is now burned into everyone’s minds at this point.
Now, 28 weeks later, Newman has the chance to turn his records of having the best average finish (8.2) and most top 10s (5) of any driver in the last six Daytona races, into a win that would be the storybook ending to a tale that turned a possibly tragedy into a jubilant triumph.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Seeding heading into the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona:
- Kevin Harvick (2057 points; Regular Season Championship clinched)
- Denny Hamlin (-10)
- Brad Keselowski (-28)
- Chase Elliott (-37)
- Joey Logano (-37)
- Martin Truex Jr. (-43)
- Ryan Blaney (-44)
- Alex Bowman (-48)
- Austin Dillon (-52)
- Cole Custer (-52)
- Aric Almirola (-52)
- Kyle Busch (-54)
- Clint Bowyer (-54)
- Kurt Busch (-55)
- William Byron (-55)
- Matt DiBenedetto (-57)
Clint Bowyer holds the 14th playoff spot by 57 points over 17th place Jimmie Johnson. Meanwhile, Matt DiBenedetto holds the 15th playoff spot by nine points over Johnson, while William Byron holds the 16th playoff spot by four over Johnson and 50 over 18th place Erik Jones.
Race coverage of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona starts at 7:30 p.m. ET (TV: NBC; Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Stages will be 50 laps for stage one, 50 laps for stage two and 60 laps for the final stage, with the race being official at the completion of lap 80 if inclement weather or adverse conditions were to prevent the race from reaching its advertised distance.