OPINION: NASCAR's playoff stage is just about set

Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

OPINION: NASCAR's playoff stage is just about set

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: NASCAR's playoff stage is just about set

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Ryan Blaney is the defending race winner at Daytona International Speedway and heads into Saturday night’s regular-season finale as the driver on the playoff grid bubble.

Martin Truex Jr., the first driver below the playoff grid cutline, has never won a superspeedway race. In his last five Daytona races, Truex has one top-10 finish and, in three of those five races, finished 25th or worse.

Blaney is third in points. Truex is sixth. Twenty-five points separate the two with one race to go, meaning a win would solidify their playoff spot, but Truex can overtake Blaney on points.

Just don’t count on it. Daytona is not the place to try and point race, and if the last few weeks are any indication, Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team isn’t going to beat Blaney and the No. 12 Team Penske team that way.

At least, not straight up. But the NASCAR Cup Series is going to Daytona, where danger lurks around every corner.

Blaney is a contender, and Truex is a contender by default, given his fight for a playoff spot. There will be no worrying about Blaney showing up with a fast car, while Truex and company will have to find some superspeedway magic and luck.

And yet, while Blaney and Truex might be the headliners this weekend, they aren’t the only characters in the story. That’s exactly what NASCAR was going for when Daytona became the place where the playoff field would be finalized.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the many others gunning for that final playoff spot.

Likely contenders

It easy to say anything can happen at Daytona and Talladega and that the field is wide-open. However, statistics and history are clear in that it’s the generally same players at the end of these races. So when it comes to contenders, think in more realistic terms given their past superspeedway performances.

Aric Almirola

Bubba Wallace

Chris Buescher

Erik Jones

Almirola, Wallace, and Jones are past superspeedway winners. Almirola has won at both Daytona and Talladega. Wallace has a Talladega win from last fall, and Jones won at Daytona a few summers ago.

Jones and Wallace have strong enough superspeedway chops to be part of the conversation heading into the final race before the playoffs. Rusty Jarrett/Motorsport Images

All four of these drivers have become consistent superspeedway drivers. Wallace was in contention for the Daytona 500 win. Jones came off Turn 4 at Talladega earlier this year gunning for the victory. And don’t forget Buescher won a Duel race in Feb., so he will likely have another fast RFK Racing Ford.

It should not be a surprise if any of these drivers end up in victory lane.

Will make things interesting

Austin Dillon

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Dillon and Stenhouse, both former Daytona winners, will have fast cars. That isn’t a concern. But can they stay out of trouble?

Both have been in the picture at superspeedway races before, but still being in contention at the end has been another story. Dillon missed the playoffs last year and ended up wrecked late. Stenhouse has looked great at Daytona in the past but has either gotten caught up in someone else’s trouble or brought misfortune upon himself.

If nothing else, watching what Dillon and Stenhouse can do Saturday night with nothing to lose will be fun.

And yet …

None of the above might matter. Blaney could very well win and make the end of the regular season anti-climactic in locking up his spot. Austin Cindric could sweep the Daytona races, or Ross Chastain could go two in a row on superspeedways after his unlikely triumph at Talladega in the spring.

Denny Hamlin and Daytona go together well, so he will be in the mix. Chase Elliott – or any Hendrick Motorsports driver – is also a strong pick.

Basically, either nothing of importance (in the big picture) will happen Saturday night, or the playoff grid will see one last shake up. Either way, you won’t see NASCAR complaining about how it’s shaped up.

Stat of the day

There have been nine different winners in the last nine straight summer Daytona races. Tony Stewart is the most recent repeat winner, having won the 2009 and ‘12 races.

MX-5 Cup | Round 12 – VIR

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