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Though the Field: Daytona Dreaming

by Elliot Hicks

The battle for the final spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is on.

16 drivers will advance into the playoffs following this Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway – the 15 drivers who have already won a race and one more who perhaps will have to win this one to make it in.

Plenty will be discussed about those drivers who will fight for the title, including a more extensive breakdown in both the next column and next week’s episode of “The Backroad,” so let’s focus on some of the stories on the outside looking in right now.

First, if there is no new winner, can we talk about how crazy it would be to see Ryan Blaney (currently third in the regular season points standings) or Martin Truex Jr. (currently sixth) miss the playoffs? These drivers have had solid seasons and are among the stars of the sport, but it’s a guarantee that at least one of them, if not both, will miss the playoffs with a winless regular season. 

The most likely scenario is that one of those two, or one of the 15 who has already won in 2022, will take the Daytona checkered flag and sail into the playoffs. But there are a lot of interesting storylines below them, heading into the Coke Zero Sugar 400 as well.

Currently 18th on the playoff leaderboard, Erik Jones has had the most competitive season we’ve seen from Petty GMS’ famed No. 43 car. And the neat thing about that is the 43 has had solid seasons more often than not with Jones and Bubba Wallace behind the wheel. Jones has won the summer Daytona race before. If he returned the number driven by NASCAR’s best – Richard Petty – to victory lane, it would almost be too good to be true.

Similarly bright storylines would occur if the aforementioned Wallace would take the victory. The superspeedways are his specialty, and bringing 23XI Racing into the playoffs for the first time would vindicate owners Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan in starting the venture and choosing Wallace to drive for them.

Or perhaps another famous team, the Wood Brothers’ No. 21, could complete a long road back from scaling back to part-time operations in the late-2000s and early 2010s to being a playoff team with rookie Harrison Burton. Oh, and it would also be the team’s 100th victory. 

And from old owners to new ones, both of Brad Keselowski’s Roush Fenway Keselowski ( RFK) Racing cars will also need a victory to qualify. Perhaps they’d be in a better place if not for points penalties given to both the No. 6 and 17 this year. Yet, a playoff berth would put a positive spin on a potentially disappointing first season for the new joint venture.

I’d be watching that team closely. Both drivers won their Duel races before the Daytona 500. Keselowski was a mover and shaker in that 500 and has won many times at superspeedways in his career. 

Here’s who else really has a chance to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Daytona’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 Best Bets

Michael McDowell (+4000):  Michael McDowell’s No. 34 team has been more competitive than perhaps anyone will give it credit for over the last two seasons, showing that the 2021 Daytona 500 win was not entirely a fluke. While McDowell and Front Row Motorsports isn’t quite at a level to compete in the playoffs to advance into later rounds, it would be no surprise to see the 34 car in victory lane this weekend.

Justin Haley (+5000):  Justin Haley has had a relatively quiet “rookie” season (it’s his first full-time in a relatively competitive ride) for Kaulig Racing. Still, he’s never been silent at Daytona, winning superspeedway races left and right in the Xfinity Series (he’s also running an Xfinity car this weekend for Kaulig) and even winning the summer 2019 Cup Series race on a rainout pit strategy. Kaulig hasn’t been any more competitive than Front Row. Yet, when you put a chance at the biggest trophy yet in front of Kaulig and its “trophy-hunting” owners, don’t be surprised to see Haley make some noise into the playoffs if he can pull off the upset this week.

Ross Chastain (+1300):  What’s much more likely is seeing someone like human-wrecking-ball Ross Chastain taking it to the field and earning another win. Both Chastain and his Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez are in the playoffs, so I would expect the team strategy to be to let it fly and see what happens. The No. 1 has been so fast this season, and Chastain has raced with nothing but the next position up the leaderboard in his mind – the perfect strategy to winning a Daytona race.

Thanks for reading. For more fantasy NASCAR and life advice, follow me on Twitter, @EHicks39, or check out more of my work at Elliot-Hicks.com.

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