Bubba Wallace in NASCAR Driver's Seat for Final Playoff Spot

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Bubba Wallace in Good Shape for Final Playoff SpotChris Graythen - Getty Images
  • Bubba Wallace, driver of the No. 23 Toyota for 23XI Racing, goes into the 400-miler at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday reasonably secure in the 16th and final Playoff spot.

  • Wallace heads into the regular season finale 32 points clear of Ty Gibbs, who is also winless, and 43 points ahead of Daniel Suarez, who won once in 2022 but not yet this year.

  • One thing that could derail Wallace's Playoff plans would be if a winner outside the top-15 in points wins his first race of the season.

Bubba Wallace can afford the luxury of playing defense in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 in Daytona Beach.


Rookie Ty Gibbs? Not so much.

Veterans Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, and Alex Bowman? Not at all. Anyone else hoping to qualify for the upcoming 16-driver, 10-race Playoffs? Absolutely not.

Wallace, driver of the No. 23 Toyota for 23XI Racing, goes into the 400-miler reasonably secure in the 16th and final Playoff spot. He’s winless this year, but has been consistent enough to be 32 points clear of Gibbs, also winless. And Wallace is 43 points ahead of Suarez, who won once in 2022 but not yet this year.

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Bubba Wallace is in line to make the NASCAR Playoffs for the second consecutive year.Meg Oliphant - Getty Images

Barring a complete meltdown of the team or something totally beyond his control, that 32-point advantage should be enough to put Wallace in the Playoffs for the first time. A driver can score a maximum 60 points by winning the race and both stages. Conversely, he can lose as many as 59 by finishing last (worth one point) and not earning stage points. The maximum points swing rests somewhere in that vast wilderness between 59 and 1.

Wallace’s best hope is to win and thus ensure his position as a championship hopeful going into the Playoff-opener on Labor Day weekend at Darlington, S.C. That failing, he needs to run well enough to keep his points lead over Gibbs and Suarez while hoping one of the 15 drivers already locked into the Playoffs wins again.

Five of the last nine Cup Series winners at Daytona International Speedway weren’t exactly considered big-name stars when they won: Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Austin Dillon, Austin Cindric, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Even more than Talladega, DIS is considered the tour’s most unpredictable track; a top-5 run can become a DNF between Turn 4 and the start-finish line. The good news is that Wallace’s record at Daytona Beach is good: three runner-up finishes and a fifth in 12 starts, plus five more finishes between 10th and 15th.

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Daniel Suarez faces a must-win situation at Daytona.Sean Gardner - Getty Images

“Daytona is a race where you just kind of budget for someone new winning,” said three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, co-owner with Michael Jordan of Wallace’s 23XI Racing team. “If they don’t, then you’re ahead of the budget. I think you still have to race smart. If you get unlucky, then you get unlucky.”

13 Different Winners... So Far

Thirteen drivers already have clinched Playoff spots with victories: Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell; Kyle Larson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron; Joey Logano and Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney; Trackhouse driver Ross Chastain; JTG Daugherty driver Ricky Stenhouse; RFK driver Chris Buescher; 23XI driver Tyler Reddick; Front Row driver Michael McDowell; and Richard Childress Racing driver Kyle Busch.

Winless drivers Brad Keselowski of RFK Racing and Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas clinched Playoff spots via points last weekend at Watkins Glen.

With a 32-point lead, it seems unlikely Wallace would lose the 16th and final spot. But if Saturday night produces a 14th winner—Chase Elliott, for example, or Alex Bowman or Suarez or Gibbs or any number of other drivers—Wallace will be eliminated in the last of the 26 regular-season races.

“Nobody is safe until the race is over,” he said mid-week. “We’re all out there fighting for the same real estate. It’s a matter of watching to see who has speed, who’s up front. If you do things differently, that’s when you make mistakes.

“We’ll be okay if there’s no new winner. But at the same time, we need to be watching the points. It’ll be a massive pat on the back if we make it. It’ll be really important.”