It’s time to bring down the curtain on the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, and Daytona International Speedway should provide an excellent stage to set the playoff field.
Saturday night’s 400-mile race (7 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock) will be the 26th and final event of the regular season. The 10-race playoffs are scheduled to start Sept. 4th at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the only drivers who can claim the 16th playoff spot via points, but a long list of drivers could slide into the playoffs with a Daytona victory.
Also on the Daytona schedule is a 7 p.m. ET Xfinity Series race on Friday (USA Network).
Blaney, Truex Or Someone Else?
The 15 drivers who won races during the regular season are locked into playoff positions. That leaves one spot to be determined Saturday night.
Ryan Blaney holds the final playoff spot and leads Martin Truex Jr., the only other driver who could qualify via points, by 25 points. Truex gained a point on Blaney at Watkins Glen Sunday.
Blaney and Truex can’t assume that Saturday night’s race is a battle among themselves, however. A victory by a non-winner from a list of 13 other drivers would put that driver in the playoffs.
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On the non-winner list, in addition to Blaney and Truex, are Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon and Todd Gilliland. Of that list, Keselowski, Almirola, Austin Dillon, Jones, McDowell, Stenhouse and Haley own victories at Daytona.
Blaney has a Daytona win, but Truex has struggled mightily at the 2.5-mile track and its sister superspeedway, Talladega Superspeedway. He has 69 starts at Daytona and Talladega without a win.
There could be a sideshow at Daytona as Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson race for the first time since their late-race battle last Sunday at Watkins Glen. Larson pushed Elliott to the side and made the pass to win with five laps remaining, opening the way for an interesting team meeting at Hendrick headquarters Monday.
Can Cindric Reappear?
Rookie Austin Cindric was an upset winner of the Daytona 500, the season-opening race. Twenty-five races down the road and on the edge of the playoffs, could he win again?
Only five drivers have swept both seasonal races at DIS — Fireball Roberts (1962), Cale Yarborough (1968), LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969), Bobby Allison (1982) and Jimmie Johnson (2013).
Because of drafting and multi-car accidents, Daytona often produces upset winners. Cindric won’t be on the favorites list entering the race, but circumstances could open the door for another victory lane visit at one of racing’s most famous tracks.
Cindric, 23, has had an up-and-down year since winning the 500. His best runs have been on road courses, although he did score a third place at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His two other top-five runs came at Sonoma (fifth) and the Indianapolis road course (second).
He has a total of seven top-10 finishes and has led laps in four races.
Whither The Weather?
Afternoon and evening thunderstorms are often a threat for night races at Daytona International Speedway, and wet weather again could be an issue for the event that will set the playoff field.
There is a 60% chance of rain during the day at Daytona Beach on Saturday, and the evening forecast calls for a 60% chance of scattered thunderstorms.
Weather has impacted eight races this year, the latest, Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen. Lightning delayed the start of the race by more than an hour, and the field started the event on rain tires. The sun appeared later, and teams changed to regular tires.
Other races dampened by weather this year: Qualifying was cancelled at both Atlanta races. The Bristol dirt race was red flagged for rain twice. Dover race was postponed by rain and completed Monday. Nashville was delayed twice by lightning and rain. New Hampshire was delayed by rain. Lightning and rain delayed the start of the Michigan race.
Thirty-seven drivers are entered in Saturday night’s Cup race, the 26th event of the regular season and the second visit to DIS this year.
Daytona Cup entry list
Forty-three drivers are entered in Friday night’s Xfinity race. The starting grid has room for 38.
Among the entries are Joe and John Hunter Nemechek, Natalie Decker and Sage Karam.
Daytona Xfinity entry list
This weekend’s schedule and forecast
(All times Eastern)
Friday, Aug. 26
Forecast: Scattered thunderstorms in the evening. Chance of rain 40%. High of 87.
3:05 – 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)
5:05 – 6:30 p.m. – Cup Series qualifying (USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (100 laps, 250 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Saturday, Aug. 27
Forecast: Scattered thunderstorms. Chance of rain 60%. High of 87.
7 p.m. — Cup Series race (160 laps, 400 miles; NBC and Peacock, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
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NASCAR viewer’s guide for Daytona International Speedway originally appeared on NBCSports.com