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Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona

Rick Allen, Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton, and Dale Jr. react to Kurt Busch's decision to withdraw his waiver to still be eligible for the playoffs and detail the scenarios for drivers like Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr.

The NASCAR Cup Series regular season will end Saturday night with a 400-mile race at Daytona International Speedway.

The race will set the field for the 16-driver Cup playoff grid. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. hope to qualify for the playoffs via points or a race win, while 13 other drivers can make the playoffs by visiting victory lane Saturday night. With Kurt Busch’s Thursday withdrawal from the playoffs, two playoff positions are available at Daytona.

Austin Cindric won the season-opening Daytona 500 and is among the drivers who will be racing for the seasonal championship beginning next week at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.

Saturday’s race (7 p.m., ET) will be televised by NBC and Peacock.

Drivers to watch at Daytona:


Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: 4th at Watkins Glen, 5th at Richmond, 11th at Michigan
  • Past at Daytona: Four straight top 10s

Elliott hasn’t won at Daytona, but he has second-place runs in 2020 and 2021. He’ll be under a microscope of sorts this weekend because he’ll open the playoffs the following week as the championship favorite but also because of his run-in with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson last Sunday at Watkins Glen.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: Won at Watkins Glen, 14th at Richmond, 7th at Michigan
  • Past at Daytona: Best finish 6th in 2016

Larson’s Daytona worksheet doesn’t shine. He has led only 18 laps in 16 Daytona starts and finished 20th in this race last year after being involved in a final-lap wreck. Winner last week at Watkins Glen, he’ll be watched Saturday night to see how he and teammate Chase Elliott share the track after the Watkins Glen brouhaha.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

Michael McDowell

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 6th at Watkins Glen, 29th at Richmond, 28th at Michigan
  • Past at Daytona: Won the 500 in 2021

McDowell might be among the top drivers from the list of those who could slip into the playoffs with a last-minute win. He won the Daytona 500 in 2021 and has led laps in four of the past eight Daytona races. In the past five races this season, he has three finishes of eighth or better. He has 10 top-10 finishes this year, double his previous best, and the 52 laps he has led this year are his most ever.


Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 23rd at Watkins Glen, 7th at Richmond, 6th at Michigan
  • Past at Daytona: Best finish -- second twice

NASCAR’s huge tracks at Daytona and Talladega have been tough for Truex. In 69 races at Daytona and Talladega, Truex owns no victories, and his last 12 starts at Daytona have produced no top-10 runs.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 24th at Watkins Glen, 10th at Richmond, 5th at Michigan
  • Past at Daytona: Won this race last year

Of the relatively long list of drivers who can make a last-gasp entry onto the playoff list with a win Saturday night, Blaney stands at or near the top. He won Daytona’s summer race last year and has four finishes of sixth or better in the past five Daytona events.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 27th
  • Last three races: 19th at Watkins Glen, 15th at Richmond, 15th at Michigan
  • Past at Daytona: Won in July 2016

Keselowski’s first year as a Cup driver-owner has been challenging. He needs a win Saturday to make the playoffs, and it’s not out of the question. He won at DIS in 2016 and has six victories at Talladega. On the down side, Keselowski has failed to finish eight of the past 11 Daytona races because of crashes.