DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Saturday’s regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway stands as an all-for-one proposition, with 17 hopeful drivers all vying for the lone remaining spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. None of them, however, should anticipate getting there alone.
Teamwork and the assistance of others in the aerodynamic draft at the high-speed 2.5-mile track will be at a premium in Saturday‘s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Peacock, NBC Sports App). In some cases, the strategies have already been discussed, with alliances drawn along team and manufacturer lines in an effort to regulate the unpredictable nature of Daytona.
“I mean, you can plan all you want for it, but it’s still a speedway race, right?” said Tyler Reddick, who is locked into the Cup Series Playoffs; his 23XI Racing teammate, Bubba Wallace, is not. “Like, it’s not gonna go as you expect, so it’s good to talk about it and have a game plan, but I mean, as soon as the green flag drops, the situation may not ever play out over the course of the entire race. It’s just the way speedway racing can be.”
The possibilities have already raised the specter of some strained what-ifs. Wallace currently has a provisional hold on the final playoff spot, with a 32-point edge over fellow Toyota driver Ty Gibbs.
Denny Hamlin made some podcast waves by saying earlier in the week that given the choice of pushing Gibbs — his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing — or Wallace — his employee at 23XI, the team he co-owns — to a playoff-clinching win, he would assist Wallace. He stood by that statement after his arrival at Daytona on Friday.
“No change in my opinion,” Hamlin said. “Certainly, I’ve kind of stated from the very beginning that the 11 car always comes first. I’d never compromise any of my on-track position for the race team I own. Certainly, it’s important to be a good leader for the team that I own; it’s also important to be a good teammate. Therefore, I’m going to work with both of them equally, but you know, right now, if I had to choose, they’re side-by-side coming to the line at the zero, zero-point-one chance that that happens, then obviously, I’d probably lean to the 23 side.”
Gibbs was brief in his media session on Friday, saying, “We’ve got great teammates at JGR, and hopefully we can all work together and have a great result for the organization.”
On the General Motors side, Ross Chastain said that Chevrolet teams met Monday to talk shop. For Chastain, two objectives stand out — to ensure the best result for Chevy but also to assist Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suárez, who is 18th in the provisional playoff standings — 43 points out of contention.
“Just getting everybody together to talk and just hear what people‘s plans are and philosophies,” Chastain said. “There are a million ways you can go about this race. I know for me, and I can‘t speak for anybody else, but my mind kind of sways with the wind on what I think is going to work. You look at statistics and the history of it, and you can read it one way, and you can read it the complete 180 of what is successful here. It was just getting us in a room and hearing everybody out.”
Suárez was sealed into the playoffs last season but said the Chevrolet thrust is different this year. Last season, one primary Chevy driver — Austin Dillon in the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 — was the focus, and Dillon cashed in with a clutch victory that put him in the postseason. This year, the list is longer.
“We always try to help each other like we always do, but the priority was the 3 car, and right now, there is four of us, so who are we going to help?” Suárez said. “So it’s a little more tricky. It’s not as easy as last year, but like I mentioned before, I think that anything can happen here in Daytona. We have seen the fastest car win the race, and we have seen a wrecked race car win the race, so anything can happen. The numbers don’t lie. Every Daytona race, the second Daytona race of the year, is always a wreckfest. So hopefully, a little bit of luck is on our side, and we can be there at the end.”
Two of those Chevrolet hopefuls are big names from the Hendrick Motorsports camp. Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman both missed time during the regular season, and both are firmly in the must-win grouping heading into Saturday night’s showdown. With two teammates trying to funnel into one playoff spot, the question of who lends help to whom gets muddled.
“That’s a great question,” said William Byron, teammate to both in Hendrick’s No. 24. “I think it’s probably not going to work out like that, but I think try to stick to one guy or another throughout the field and just try to see who works the best together. You know, I personally haven’t … I don’t know, I’ve worked with both in the past. I think Chase pushed me to my first win here, so maybe a little bit of karma there and maybe try to pay that back, so we’ll see. We’ll see. Just try to help when I can.”
Elliott said he’s already talked with Bowman about the possibilities if the late-race cards are dealt with the two battling at the front.
“Well, I mean, I don’t want to wreck the guy for the win, but honestly, I hope it comes down to the two of us because that means one of us is gonna get in, or one of us has a good shot of getting in if it’s he and I racing to the line,” Elliott said. “So I hope that’s the case for the sake of Hendrick Motorsports and Alex and I, we typically work really well together at these tracks. Ironically enough, we’re in the position where one of us is going to be left short, but you know, it’s part of racing, and I’m looking forward to it. I know he is, too. We’ve talked about it a lot this week, so we’re excited, ready to go to battle.”
Ford’s best-laid plans may be easier to execute early on after the manufacturer swept the first three spots in qualifying and put 10 Mustangs among the top 14. Chase Briscoe’s No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford will start from the pole position, with teammate Aric Almirola sharing the front row on Saturday.
Almirola said that Ford team managers and crew chiefs typically meet to talk strategy during the week ahead of superspeedway events, with drivers convening on race day. SHR teamwork was essential in helping Almirola to a superspeedway victory at Talladega in 2018, and he said it would be crucial again come Saturday.
“I don’t think it’s harder to do here, but it’s a prerequisite for winning — at least getting yourself in position,” Almirola said. “I think you have to work together with your teammates because this style of racing, you are so dependent on the cars around you. So it’s important to have teamwork, but you’ve got to have fast teammates, and we’ve had really fast speedway cars at Stewart-Haas Racing. So working together is a must for us, and then when it gets down to the end, obviously, it’s every man for himself.”