Friday 5: Those with best shot to win their way into playoffs at Daytona
Thirteen drivers outside a playoff spot could win their way into the playoff field Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).
Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the only winless drivers in a playoff spot after Kurt Busch withdrew his playoff waiver. If there’s a new winner Saturday -- and they are in the top 30 in points -- Blaney or Truex would be eliminated from title contention.
Seven of those 13 drivers who could move into a playoff spot have won a Cup race at Daytona: Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski.
Of the six remaining playoff-eligible drivers who have not won at Daytona, Bubba Wallace has finished second there three times, including the last two races, and Chris Buescher’s best finish is third. Others who could make the playoffs with a win Saturday night are Cole Custer, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon and Todd Gilliland.
Here’s a look at five drivers outside a playoff spot who could win their way into the postseason and knock either Blaney or Truex out:
1. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski started the year, his first as co-owner of RFK Racing, with the goal of having both cars make the playoffs. Neither car is in a playoff spot with one race left in the regular season.
But Daytona is one of the team’s best tracks.
Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each won their qualifying race at Daytona in February. Keselowski led a race-high 67 laps in the Daytona 500, but he also triggered two accidents.
Drivers and teams were trying to figure out the car and what they could and couldn’t do in February. They now have a better understanding of the car. Keselowski’s pushes and driving style could work better this weekend.
Keselowski has one win at Daytona and six at Talladega. Those seven superspeedway victories are the most among active drivers. Denny Hamlin is next with five superspeedway wins.
Also at stake for Keselowski is keeping his winning streak going. He has won at least one Cup race 11 consecutive seasons. The last time he went winless in a Cup season was 2010 — the final year of Jimmie Johnson’s five consecutive series titles.
2. Bubba Wallace
Wallace enters Saturday confident. He had four top-10 finishes before a 13th at Richmond and a 35th at Watkins Glen. The Richmond finish was one spot off his career-best Cup result at that track. He failed to finish at Watkins Glen because of a mechanical issue.
After coming so close before at Daytona, Wallace has the road map on what it takes to get to the front.
“We just have to make sure we are there at the end, whatever that race may provide,” he said. “If you’re inside the top five with two or three (laps) to go, then you have a really good shot at winning. That’s our goal. Let’s get to three to go and make sure we’re in that spot, and then we go and fight.”
3. Michael McDowell
The 2021 Daytona 500 winner has a good track record on the superspeedways.
He is one of three drivers with top-10 finishes at both Daytona and Talladega this season. The other two drivers are points leader Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.
McDowell has five top 10s in his last 10 Daytona starts. Only twice during that time has he failed to finish.
A win to earn a playoff spot would add to what has been McDowell’s best season in his Cup career, which began in 2008. He has a career-high 10 top 10s. That figure is one more top 10 than he earned in 2020 and ’21 combined.
4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
He was running toward the front late in this year’s Daytona 500 before a push from Brad Keselowski turned him and ended his race.
Stenhouse’s two career Cup victories came on superspeedways in 2017. He won at Daytona and Talladega that year to make the playoffs, racing for what was then known as Roush Fenway Racing.
Since winning at Daytona in 2017, Stenhouse has failed to finish in the top 10 there in nine races. He’s led laps in six of those events.
So how can he avoid trouble and have a chance to win Saturday?
“A lot of the times, I feel like, when you ride around (at the back), you can get a really good finish, but I feel like nobody that rides around generally wins,” he said. “I feel like you’ve kind of got to be in the mix all day, so that when you get down to the end, you know what moves to make.”
5. Austin Dillon
Since his 2018 Daytona 500 win, Dillon has had only two top-10 finishes at that track, but he knows how to get to the front.
Dillon anticipates getting his share of help Saturday but also knows it only goes so far.
“Getting the 3 car in (the playoffs) would be a huge feat for RCR right now,” Dillon said. “I think I’ll definitely have a lot of help from (teammate Tyler Reddick) and some of our Chevy affiliates, but when someone has the opportunity to win, they don’t blink on it.”