It’s easy to look at Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale as having one very simple storyline — the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway will finalize the 16-driver postseason field.
All but one spot has already been clinched, with Bubba Wallace currently on the bubble, 400 miles away from his first appearance in the postseason.
Seems simple, but Saturday night has the makings to be much more complicated. The way that last playoff berth is determined will be critical, as will the knock-on effects through the field.
Let’s break down what to watch Saturday night on the high banks of Daytona.
Wallace doesn’t have to win Saturday night, but he’s approaching the race like he needs to — it’s the safest way to ensure he makes the playoffs. Ty Gibbs and Daniel Suarez are the only drivers who are still mathematically in the hunt to overtake Wallace on points and a 32-point gap can easily dwindle or completely disappear in the first two stages.
These three drivers don’t want to points race, which isn’t easy to do at Daytona, anyway. Wallace is one of the top superspeedway drivers in the series and as long as he continues his “Saturday night could turn into a must-win” approach, expect to see him run aggressively.
Gibbs and Suarez have no choice but to run as hard as they can all night. There is no guarantee they will overtake Wallace on points without the 23XI driver getting into trouble, so going out and positioning themselves to challenge for the win is the agenda.
A new winner
The hopes of Wallace, Gibbs, and Suarez can easily go up in flames if someone behind them wins. There are 14 other drivers who can win their way into the playoffs.
AJ Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley are all fighting like their lives depend on it. Ryan Preece, Aric Almirola, and Chase Briscoe — all from the Stewart-Haas Racing — would love for something to go their way this season.
Corey LaJoie, Erik Jones, and Austin Dillon have no problem playing spoiler. Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, and Ty Dillon would love to just be in the conversation.
Alliances are nothing new at superspeedways, but Saturday night has the makings of taking that concept to the extreme. Consider the drivers who are locked into the playoffs that have teammates on the outside looking in, and how pushing a teammate is what is going to be best for business.
Ross Chastain will be the wingman for Suarez. Kyle Busch could do the same for Austin Dillon. Team Penske has Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney locked in the playoffs, but not Cindric.
Hendrick Motorsports is in a terrible position with two drivers locked in, two on the outside and only one spot available. Not since 2016 has Hendrick only had two cars in the postseason. How will the drafting partners shake out between William Byron, Kyle Larson, Bowman and Elliott?
Denny Hamlin might be in the most complicated situation of all. He owns Wallace’s car, but he’s teammates with Gibbs. Don’t spend too much time wondering who Hamlin is going to push because he’s already admitted it’s going to be Wallace and Joe Gibbs Racing needs to understand that. Time will tell if Gibbs does, though.
Blocking and taking one for the team isn’t at all unlikely either. Tyler Reddick admitted he wasn’t going to pass Austin Dillon a year ago in this race when they were both at Richard Childress Racing. Reddick played blocker for Dillon in the final laps, which helped Dillon go to victory lane and take a playoff spot.
Will Reddick do the same again, this time for Wallace?
The danger of being the teammate who falls in line, however, is giving up your own points that might be needed down the road. It’s also giving up an opportunity to win, which is hard enough in the Cup Series — and more than that, it would be giving up a win at Daytona.
Oh, by the way, the regular-season championship will be decided Saturday night. Yes, that’s important because the driver who wins it gets 15 playoff points and, as we’ve seen over the years, those points are priceless.
Martin Truex Jr. leads Hamlin by 39 points. Truex will clinch it with 22 points, while Hamlin — who will also have an eye on Wallace — as previously mentioned, needs help to overtake his teammate.
No. 1 seed
Truex and Hamlin are battling for the regular-season championship and yet someone else could potentially be the No. 1 seed when the top 10 drivers are re-racked. As a reminder, drivers in the top 10 all receive extra playoff points – 15 for first, 10 for second, eight for third and so on.
William Byron, third in the championship standings, leads the series in wins and playoff points (28) going into Saturday night. As things currently stand, Byron is the No. 1 seed and would remain there if nothing changes through Daytona.
Truex has 20 points going into Saturday night, and the additional 15 points — should he win the regular-season championship — would only give him a total of 35 to start the playoffs. To become the No. 1 seed, Truex needs to win the regular-season championship and both stages (two playoff points) at Daytona to get the edge over Byron.
But wait, it can get even more interesting…
A perfect race weekend for Hamlin could give him the No. 1 seed. He has 15 playoff points going into Daytona, so he would need to win the regular-season championship (15 points), both stages (two playoff points), and the race (five playoff points) to jump to 37 playoff points and leapfrog Truex and Byron atop the playoff grid.
Seeding really does matter in making the championship fight a bit easier.
In the elimination format era, a driver seeding No. 1 has won the championship four times (Kyle Busch 2015; Truex 2017; Busch 2019; Kyle Larson 2021). The lowest a driver has been seeded and won the championship is seventh (Kevin Harvick 2014; Joey Logano 2018).