Well… here we are. Last week of the regular season. And back at Daytona. What can we divine from the Daytona 500 and apply to this week’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, if anything?
Jeff: I’d include Talladega’s spring race along with Daytona in trying to figure out how the racing might go. With this car at superspeedways, the trend has leaned toward track position being crucial because the two-by-two lines don’t move as much as they used to. It won’t be surprising to see the whole field running alongside each other without much movement for laps at a time. Gone are the days when a car could drop to the back to stay out of trouble and then simply race back up through the field at will. Naturally, impatience and aggressiveness will lead to mistakes at some point that will then take out a large amount of cars and narrow the field. If you’re putting money on this race, it’s definitely bettor beware thanks to the random nature of the wrecks.
Jordan: Passing and going from the back to the front is not as (relatively) easy as it once was, thereby putting a premium on track position and doing whatever it takes to hold that position. Combining the importance of track position with the frantic nature that comes with this being the last chance to secure a playoff means expect a high number of late cautions, much like what’s unfolded in superspeedway races this season.
Will this race be absolute chaos, with an already prone-to-crashes course mixed with 15-plus drivers trying to either win or get in on points? And then there’s the Bubba Wallace/Ty Gibbs strategy scenario, broken down artfully in The Top 5 this week. If someone is tuning in for the first time, what should they expect?
Jeff: It will probably devolve into chaos at the end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the first two stages are relatively calm. Everyone knows they have to survive until they can really go for it in the final laps, so what’s the point of risking your car by putting it in a bad position early? Getting taken out on Lap 15 of a 400-mile race because of an over-aggressive move seems really short-sighted and foolish. But yes, it won’t be surprising if there are multiple overtimes to decide the race at the end.
Jordan: As laid out above, expect chaos. And volatility. And the chance for an upset winner. This is the beauty of Daytona hosting the regular season finale and why the decision a few a few years to shift Daytona from its traditional July date to this spot was an absolute masterstroke.
Who do you think wins this race?
Jeff: This could be set up nicely for a Brad Keselowski win (+1200). Here’s my reasoning: The Fords always work well together and Keselowski has raced with a lot of confidence in the Next Gen’s two Daytona 500s so far (he led the most laps in both of those races despite not finishing better than ninth in either). Given Keselowski is locked into the playoffs and can go all-out for the win, it will be surprising if he’s not in the mix on Saturday night. From there, it’s just a matter of circumstances.
Jordan: Keselowski is a great, great pick for all the reasons Jeff laid out. But Bubba Wallace is the pick here. Wallace is one of the best on superspeedways and three times has finished second at Daytona. He gets that first win on Saturday night.
NOOB question of the week: Has there ever been this crazy of a scramble for the final spot?
Jeff: There have been much crazier ones over the years in this format, but each year seems to have a slightly different wrinkle. What’s enjoyable is when you get a situation like we see this weekend: A spot available on points with a decent battle for that position *plus* the prospect of a new winner erasing that spot altogether and claiming it for themselves. The recipe is set up for some decent drama on Saturday night.
Jordan: Last year was fairly wild and unpredictable with two drivers (Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr.) ranked top five in points but with the possibility that one of them would improbably not qualify for the playoffs.
The intrigue of this final spot is pretty great, but how daunting of a road is it for the No. 16 (or 14, or 10, etc) seed to actually make a run deep into the playoffs? Like if Ty Gibbs (who is currently 50-1 to win the title) wins and gets in, what’s it look like from there?
Jeff: First of all, whoever gets the final spot on Saturday might not actually end up being the No. 16 seed. If it’s a new winner, they’ll have five playoff points and be seeded ahead of the drivers who don’t have as many points (like Kevin Harvick, who has just one playoff point right now). But anyway, that wasn’t the question. In terms of a long shot driver making a run? Yeah, it’s pretty unlikely. Every now and then you’ll see a driver make it to the final eight who no one expected – like Chase Briscoe last season. But advancing to the Championship 4 is another matter entirely, and then actually winning the title? It seems like an extreme long shot in today’s NASCAR.
Jordan: A 16th seed hasn’t advanced to the championship round, yet. But never say never even if it is unlikely. That’s the beauty of sports.
Are there any props you see this week that you find interesting, consider all the different motivations and situations in this week’s race?
Jeff: A head-to-head matchup between Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson with relatively equal odds seems bonkers to me, but I guess anything can happen at Daytona. That said, the stats certainly favor Almirola (-125) because Larson (-105) has failed to finish the last four Daytona races and seven of the 10 superspeedway races in the Next Gen Era so far. Almirola, meanwhile, has led double-digit laps in five straight superspeedway races.
Odds for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona
(Top photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)