NASCAR season comes full circle at Daytona

Automorbit, Sport – It’s a wild card delight Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway’s high-banked 2.5-mile tri-oval to close out the final regular-season race of 2020 with the Coke Zero Sugar 400. For over half the field that is trying to qualify for the playoffs which start next week at Darlington Raceway, it’ll be do or die. Win and you’re automatically in.

The wildness of this race with such high stakes is the volatile nature of the superspeedway race where all the cars are almost equal and any driver can win. This is a track that saw 23 lead changes among 13 drivers and the other superspeedway race at Talladega saw 56 lead changes among 19 drivers.

This is the first time in Daytona’s 146 NASCAR Cup races dating back to 1959 that they’ll be racing in August, but it was done on purpose and not pandemic-made. It was initially put on the 2020 schedule to shake things up in the race that decides which 16 drivers will race for the championship. I like it.

Let’s go one better. Have Talladega as the turn-race to the playoffs to keep the wild card scene happening to the fullest degree, and then use Daytona as the final race. Start and finish the season at Daytona.

Here’s a look at some drivers and a few resume notes I’ll be looking to deep into for before wagering on Saturday night’s race:

No. 11 Denny Hamlin (10-1): He’s won three of the last five Daytona 500s, including the last two. But he’s never won the summer race there. He was 26th last season, 38th in 2018, 24th in 2017 and 17th in 2016 after winning his first Daytona 500 in February. The Daytona museum displays the winning Daytona 500 car all year so Hamlin has never used his winning car in the summer race.

No. 12 Ryan Blaney (8-1): Team Penske has put together a great superspeedway race package and so far in 2020 he was runner-up at Daytona and won at Talladega after leading a race-high 63 laps. He also won at Talladega last fall. No one has a better mark between the last three superspeedway races.

No. 22 Joey Logano (8-1): Team Penske power has helped him win four times on the Superspeedways, not including winning Daytona duels the last two seasons. The 2015 Daytona 500 champ is one of the best at finding a way to the front.

No. 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16-1): His only Cup wins have come at Daytona and Talladega in 2017 and his skills are a huge equalizer in these races. He’s aggressive and doesn’t stay in the same place for too long. He was runner-up at Talladega in June.

No. 2 Brad Keselowski (12-1): He’s the active superspeedway win leader with six wins, but his 2016 summer win at Daytona is his only win there. He doesn’t have a top-10 in the ensuing seven races, including 27th or worse in six of the last seven. Still, he’s got Team Penske equipment.

No. 9 Chase Elliott (12-1): He’s got a superspeedway car, but has had no luck at Daytona despite leading in seven of his nine starts. Really, no top-fives or top-10s in nine Daytona starts. However, he does have two Daytona Duels wins and won at Talladega last April.

No. 20 Erik Jones (25-1): One of his two career Cup wins came in this 2018 summer race and he was third in the 2019 Daytona 500. He needs to make the playoffs, and his best shot to guarantee it is by winning. He needs a new home as well and must impress.

No. 18 Kyle Busch (16-1): He has had only two wins during his Cup career at superspeedways. The randomness of the two volatile tracks has not called his number since he won both in 2008. Now, in desperation with no wins in 2020, he could use the randomness to his benefit.

No. 10 Aric Almirola (14-1): His only two wins have come at Daytona in the summer race and at Talladega in 2018. He was third at Talladega in June and fourth there in October. His five top-fives this season are already a career-high.

I’m also figuring out what to do with live underdogs Austin Dillon (30-1), John Hunter Nemechek (60-1), Brendan Gaughan (200-1), and Chris Buescher (40-1) all who have shown a knack for having what it takes to be successful in avoiding collisions, which start with simply having a car still on the track with 10 laps to go. Harder said than done.

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