Bubba Wallace has his eyes on the trophy in Daytona cutoff race

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Entering Saturday night‘s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Bubba Wallace considers himself in a win-or-bust situation—until he isn‘t.

Wallace is 16th in the standings, 32 points ahead of 17th-place Ty Gibbs, approaching the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

That‘s a relatively secure position as far as the final Playoff spot is concerned—unless a winless driver not named Brad Keselowski or Kevin Harvick happens to take the checkered flag and knock Wallace out of the postseason.

Last year‘s cutoff race at Daytona was a perfect example. Austin Dillon dodged a 13-car wreck with 22 laps left and stole the final Playoff berth with a victory.

Aware of the possibility of an unexpected winner, the driver of the No. 23 Toyota prefers to approach the event with a singleness of purpose, though he also acknowledges that top-10 performances in the first two stages could help his cause.

“Everyone is in a must-win situation,” Wallace said. “If you‘re not locked in, you‘re in a must-win situation. The last race is Daytona, and we‘ve seen surprise winners.

“No one is safe until the race is over with. We‘re hoping we can do everything right, continue to get stage points. And if there‘s a new winner, it has to be the 23 car—other than that, everyone is fighting for the same real estate.”

Both of Wallace‘s career victories—at Talladega in 2021 and Kansas last year—have come during the Cup Series Playoffs. But in both cases, Wallace had failed to qualify for the postseason.

“For some reason, I like to win in the Playoffs—and that doesn‘t matter because (the regular season is) over. But a win is a win, right? They can‘t take that away from us, but we‘re not a part of it.”

This year, Wallace has two ways to rectify that situation, either by winning Saturday night or qualifying on points.

Realistically, that‘s a luxury other Playoff hopefuls don‘t have—until it isn‘t.

Aric Almirola likes his chances to steal a Playoff berth at Daytona

In 2018, Aric Almirola came within two corners of winning the Daytona 500. Two of Almirola‘s three NASCAR Cup Series victories have come at superspeedways—in the summer 2014 race at Daytona and the Playoff race at Talladega in 2018.

Accordingly, it‘s not surprising that the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is optimistic about his chances of earning a Playoff spot with a victory in Saturday‘s Coke Zero Sugar 400.

“This place is a place where I‘ve had a lot of fast race cars over the years and led a lot of laps,” said Almirola, whose position of 25th in the series standings leaves him in a must-win situation where the Playoffs are concerned.

“This is certainly a place I feel like I can win at… I went back and looked at a lot of film getting ready for this race, and I‘ve seen that No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang up front in every single one of them.

“You just have to have things go your way. You‘ve got to manage all of it—the pit cycle, when to come on and off pit road with your teammates, making sure you do all the little things right…

“I know where Victory Lane‘s at. I‘ve won the last couple of Duels here (Daytona 500 qualifying races in 2021 and 2023), and we‘ve had really, really fast race cars. I think that will still be the same.”

If qualifying is any indication, Almirola‘s assessment is accurate. He‘ll start on the front row on Saturday after running second to teammate Chase Briscoe in Friday‘s Daytona time trials.

NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying – Coke Zero Sugar 400
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida
Friday, August 25, 2023

1. (14) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 181.822 mph.
2. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 181.693 mph.
3. (21) Harrison Burton, Ford, 181.404 mph.
4. (23) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 181.309 mph.
5. (54) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 181.298 mph.
6. (36) Riley Herbst(i), Ford, 181.276 mph.
7. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 181.254 mph.
8. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 181.054 mph.
9. (41) Ryan Preece, Ford, 180.937 mph.
10. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 180.825 mph.
11. (17) Chris Buescher, Ford, 180.534 mph.
12. (6) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 180.448 mph.
13. (19) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 180.390 mph.
14. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 180.281 mph.
15. (20) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 180.260 mph.
16. (2) Austin Cindric, Ford, 180.205 mph.
17. (16) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 180.177 mph.
18. (8) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 180.169 mph.
19. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 180.137 mph.
20. (45) Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 180.047 mph.
21. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 179.809 mph.
22. (99) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 179.802 mph.
23. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 179.716 mph.
24. (43) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 179.634 mph.
25. (1) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 179.612 mph.
26. (62) Austin Hill(i), Chevrolet, 179.261 mph.
27. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet, 179.172 mph.
28. (31) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 179.094 mph.
29. (42) Josh Berry(i), Chevrolet, 179.026 mph.
30. (77) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 178.855 mph.
31. (48) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 178.731 mph.
32. (47) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 178.635 mph.
33. (51) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 178.532 mph.
34. (15) Brennan Poole(i), Ford, 178.518 mph.
35. (38) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 178.497 mph.
36. (13) Chandler Smith(i), Chevrolet, 178.458 mph.
37. (7) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 178.310 mph.
38. (78) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 177.876 mph.
39. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 177.473 mph.

Justin Haley isn‘t optimistic about his prospects at Daytona

Despite a glowing record at the World Center of Racing, Justin Haley doesn‘t like his chances in Saturday night‘s Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Next season, Haley will jump ship from Kaulig Racing, which fields Chevrolets, to Rick Ware Racing, which races Fords. Accordingly, Haley thinks it will be difficult to find drafting partners in the final regular-season race.

Currently, Haley is 23rd in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, needing a victory on Saturday to leap-frog his way into the Playoffs.

“I think the Cup deal right now is whoever has the most people helping ‘em,” said Haley, whose only Cup victory came in a rain-shortened summer race at Daytona. “Unfortunately, I don‘t have very many people helping me. So it‘ll be a tough day tomorrow. But hopefully we‘ll have a fast car, qualify up front and stick ourselves up in the pack.”

Haley, who has two Daytona victories in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, along with two at sister track Talladega, doesn‘t think he‘ll get much help from his current Chevrolet compatriots.

“There‘s a lot of Chevy cars out (of the Playoffs)—Austin (Dillon), Chase (Elliott), Alex (Bowman),” Haley said. “I don‘t think I‘m at the top of the priority list.”

Kaulig Racing driver AJ Allmendinger—another driver who needs a win to make the Playoffs—doesn‘t think lack of support for his teammate will affect his own race.

“Do you ever really have help?” Allmendinger asked rhetorically. “Yeah, it‘s nice to have a couple of teammates that are locked in. Obviously, the 5 (Kyle Larson) and the 24 (William Byron) are going to be helping the 48 (Alex Bowman) and the 9 (Chase Elliott), but there‘s a lot of cars that need to make their way in.

“It‘s so hard with this now. It‘s not like the old car, where you could get big runs and get your teammates to go with you, and the next thing you know, you‘re driving to the front. You‘ve got to be in the right position at the right time as well. “

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has to balance aggression with awareness of Playoff hopefuls

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the first driver to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs—by winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

Stenhouse also has plenty of incentive to try to win Saturday night‘s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. There are seven Playoff points on the line, one for each of the first two stages and five for a victory.

Those points would be extremely helpful. Stenhouse is the only driver currently locked into the Playoffs who hasn‘t won a stage this season.

Then there‘s the season sweep. Only five drivers have won both Daytona races in a single season. Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was the last to accomplish the feat, in 2013.

But Stenhouse also says he has to pay attention to drivers who are trying to claim the final Playoff spot.

“Definitely something that you think about,” said the driver of the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Chevrolet. “You don‘t want to be the reason somebody gets in over somebody else, right? Points-wise and other cars, you will definitely—or at least I will—be a little more cautious around some of those cars that are right there on the cutoff line for points.

“Some Chevy guys are racing for a win. You have buddies that are trying to make the Playoffs and things like that. So you try to be respectful of those guys, but know that we still have a job to do and try to take some points away from other people as well.”

— NASCAR News Wire —

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