After 25 races and nearly five months – two of which we were at a standstill because of the pandemic - we are down to one final race to determine the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field. While most of the 16 spots – 13 to be exact – have already been solidified, three more are up for grabs as we head into the Coke Zero Sugar 400 this Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
That right there quite possibly lends more intrigue for the cutoff race to the Playoffs than what there has ever been. Historically, this race has been run on July 4 weekend, but as part of several changes to the 2020 schedule, this was moved to its current slot, allowing for much guessing as to who and how the final three Playoff spots will be secured on Saturday night.
If you’ve watched NASCAR for any length of time, you know that racing at Daytona International Speedway has the ability to produce the most unexpected of results. It has led to surprise winners for both the DAYTONA 500 in February and also the Coke Zero Sugar. Could we be in store for something similar this year, or will drivers play it safe, and not get caught up in “The Big One,” for which Daytona has become famous?
Although he has not technically clinched a playoff berth, Clint Bowyer stands in 14th spot with 685 points and owns a comfortable 45-point lead over Matt DiBenedetto, who is 15th with 637 points. William Byron currently sits in the final playoff spot (632 points), as he is just four points ahead of 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Johnson could conceivably overtake DiBenedetto or Byron and “point his way” into the playoffs if things fall into place. However, as I’ve said before this is Daytona, and if someone below that cut line takes the checkered flag, it would bump out Byron or whoever turns out to be the final driver currently in on points.
Before the season, 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson – who claimed each of his championships here at Homestead-Miami Speedway – declared that 2020 would be his final full-time season. With the exception of the first four races, we have run every race this year in the midst of a pandemic. It’s hardly the way he envisioned exiting the sport that he helped to change in many ways. I’m also certain that he would like to go out with an opportunity to surpass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. as the only driver in NASCAR history with eight championships. After not qualifying for the playoffs a year ago, I’m sure he would like nothing more than to be a part of that 16-driver Playoff field. It’s not out of the question, as Johnson owns four Cup Series wins at Daytona, including two in the DAYTONA 500 (2006, 2013) and one in the Coke Zero Sugar (2013). He is not the only driver below the cut line to have claimed victory at Daytona. The list also includes Erik Jones (2018 Coke Zero Sugar), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017 Coke Zero Sugar), Ryan Newman (2008 DAYTONA 500) and Matt Kenseth (2019, 2012 DAYTONA 500).
These drivers also know what it takes to win on the high banks of the Daytona tri-oval and could conceivably repeat history. We will know soon and it should be as exciting of a cutoff race as we’ve had in quite some time.
“GIVE BACK AT THE TRACK” LOOK BACK: I wanted to take this moment and use this space to thank everyone for their participation in our “Give Back at the Track” event held last Saturday. As a result of a lot of hard work by our staff as well as the generosity of numerous people in the community, more than 500 cars took to the track during the course of the day, as our focus was to raise money for “Driving for a Cause,” our donor-advised fund of the NASCAR Foundation. The turnout was unbelievable, and it was great to see everyone back at our facility, and do it in a way where we were able to observe the proper safety measures. We hope to do this once or twice more before the end of the year. Stay tuned for more information.
INDIANAPOLIS 500: Traditionally, the Indianapolis 500 is run on Memorial Day, and precedes the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In the midst of a pandemic, many key sporting events have been moved off their usual dates while some have just been canceled altogether. The Indianapolis 500 was moved from its traditional spot to last weekend, as it was a prelude to the NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway. While it was held without fans in attendance, just the fact that it was still the Indianapolis 500 drew me to watching it, as I’m sure it did for many others. And because of what it was, the drivers who were a part of the field went into it with the same focus. While the winner – Takuma Sato – did not get to celebrate with the nearly 300,000 fans as he did the first time he won it in 2017, I’m sure it was just as gratifying. He still celebrated in Victory Lane with the Borg Warner Trophy, while the tradition of drinking from the milk bottle did not disappear. There are still certain things that a pandemic can’t affect.
This Week’s Racing Schedule – Daytona International Speedway
Friday, August 28 - NASCAR Xfinity Series
Wawa 250, 7:30 pm NBCSN
Saturday, August 29 - NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400, 7:30 pm
*All races will air on Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90