Predictions for an unpredictable Daytona

Coming up this weekend is what I consider, one of the most anticipated NASCAR races in a long time. Going in to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season finale, just about everyone has something to race for one way or another. The strategies will be all over the place, and a lot of the drivers will need to come into Daytona with completely different mind sets from one another. So, despite this probably being one of the most unpredictable races in years, I will do my best to predict exactly how this race is going to unfold.

 First and foremost is off course the bubble drivers. Clint Bowyer is all but locked in to the playoffs, and for him not to make the cut, William Byron needs to win both stages and finish the race at least 3rd, with somebody outside the top 16 winning the races. If he wants to control his own destiny however, he basically needs to make sure he survives long enough to finish 32nd. So expect Bowyer to hang out at the back for most of the race, either until Byron has failed to score enough stage points, or until enough people have crashed out.

Matt DiBenedetto (+9), William Byron (+4) and Jimmie Johnson (-4) will all have pretty much the exact same objective for the race, which is score as many points as possible, but still be there at the end. Sound simple, right? Not exactly, it’s anything but simple. Every single move these guys make throughout this race could make or break their entire season. So exactly how these guys will approach Daytona is almost impossible to predict. For Matt DiBenedetto I think it will be all about staying up front all race long. He’s got his Penske Racing affiliates to help him out, and those have been some of the fastest cars on plate tracks over the last few years. So if they can make their way to the front, those Penske boys will be doing all the blocking for him, making sure he’s 2nd or 3rd at the end of each stage, while one of them passes him off turn 4 to take the stage wins.

The fact that Byron and Johnson are teammates obviously doesn’t help their situations either, as they’ll have to work together while desperately trying to beat each other. “But there are two slots available, so why can’t they just work together and finish 15th and 16th in the standings?”. Because if somebody outside the top 16 wins the race, the cut-off line moves up, and only 15th place gets in. So then the issue becomes who is going to get the most stage points of the two throughout the race, and who is going to be leading come the last couple of laps? Rick Hendrick has probably got the toughest job of all team owners this week, as he can come out of Daytona with anywhere between two and four cars in the playoffs.

What about the guys already locked in to the playoffs? They’ve got nothing to race for, so why would they still need to score points? These are unfortunate misperceptions I see a lot of on from fans on social medias. Put simply, every position in the points standings is worth another playoff point. Kevin Harvick already secure the 15 points for wining the regular season, but 2nd place also gets an additional 10 points, 3rd place gets 8 points and then it drops one point per position down to 1 point for 10th place. So coming to the finish line in each of these stages, everyone will be doing everything they can to get as far up in the top 10 as possible, not to mention what it will be like at the end of the race. Cause even if you don’t score that one playoff point you get for a stage win, dropping or gaining a position on the last few yards, could end up being the difference between gaining or losing a point going in to the playoffs. These are points that you carry through each round of the playoffs as well, so it’s not just one point at start of the playoffs. It’s one point more to start off the Round of 12 as well, and potentially even the Round of 8.

Looking back at the cut-off races these last couple of years, it’s pretty obvious that one or two points could be the difference between advancing or your season being over. Now obviously different drivers are in different positions, like Denny Hamlin in 2nd and Aric Almirola in 8th have no chance of gaining a position, so I’m expecting them to be taking it easy in the first half of the race, to make sure they survive long enough to be there at the end to score just enough points to keep their positions. Drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott or Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer on the other hand who are all within a few points of each other, will most likely be pushing themselves to the limit most of the race to score just about as many points as they can to try and gain or retain that extra play-off points.

Then there is the final group of drives who just have one mission throughout the entire race, lead at the end of the final lap! The only way for the drivers outside the top 17 (inside the top 30) to get in to the playoffs is to win at Daytona. Erik Jones in 18th can get in without a win should absolutely everything go his way, but he needs to go into Daytona with the mentality of winning the race. How these guys approach the race will obviously (again) vary from driver to driver, but they cannot afford to put themselves in harms way and get involved in any wrecks what so ever, so I’m expecting most of these drivers to hang out back until we are halfway through the final stage. It’s all about risk versus reward for all these drivers, and if they are to win the race, first they need to make it the final stage, and ultimately lap 160.

A driver like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will most likely put himself up front as quickly as possible and do everything he can to be in contention all day, but with that comes a great risk. It could reward him with a win, but it could just as well put him on the back of a tow truck. Of the drivers currently outside the playoffs, the five drivers I think have the best shot at winning their way into the playoffs are Tyler Reddick, Ryan Preece, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Jimmie Johnson and Christopher Bell. Off course all 14 drivers have a good shot, but in the end, there are a total of 40 cars out on the track, and one little mistake from one of those drivers could end the day for half the field.

So, my predictions. Joey Logano will score his first win since Phoenix in early March, with Matt DiBenedetto and Jimmie Johnson securing the final two spots in the playoffs. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will have led a lap by lap 30, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas will go with their own weird pit strategy, and Penske Racing along with the Wood Brothers #21 will be 1-2-3-4 at some point during the race.

/Linus Broström

Double up at Dover Downs – One race to go

Six spectacular races in three days is what we were treated with at Dover International Speedway this weekend! Unfortunately, fans were not allowed to attend, but if they were, I bet they would’ve had an amazing weekend. On Friday Ty Gibbs won the ARCA Menards East Series race, which was followed up by a win by Zane Smith in the Truck Series. On Saturday we saw the first part of the double double-header with Justin Allgaier finally scoring his first win of the season in the Xfinity Series, and Denny Hamlin winning the Cup Series race, scoring the maximum of 60 points. On Sunday Chase Briscoe scored his first Xfinity Series win since Indianapolis, followed by Kevin Harvick winning the final Cup Series race, scoring 60 points as well.

By winning the first stage in Sundays race, Kevin Harvick secured the win of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series regular season, giving him an additional 15 playoff points. Behind Hamlin and Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. finished 2nd in both races, following up on his five straight 3rd place finishes, which mean he’s now got SEVEN straight top 3 finishes, without a win. No matter what happens at Daytona, that has got to be a great momentum builder going into the playoffs.

Behind these guys though, as usual, my main focus at this point of the season is the playoff bubble battle. Going into this double header weekend at Dover, Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto both had a 66 point gap down to the cut-off line while William Byron had 25. Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones and Tyler Reddick was just below the line, 25, 35 and 57 points behind respectively.

On Saturday Clint Bowyer had one of his best races of the season, scoring 15 stage points and finishing in the 6th position, with Jimmie Johnson in 7th with seven stage points. Meanwhile Matt DiBenedetto and William Byron struggled badly all race long, finishing 20th and 28th with no stage points. Erik Jones finished 12th and Tyler Reddick 13th.  This brought DiBenedetto’s gap down to a mere 27 points, while Johnson moved up above the cut-off line, just three points ahead of Byron who dropped out of the top 16.

On Sunday the table was completely flipped over for some drivers and William Byron went from miserable to great overnight. With a good strategy call to finish off the first stage he managed to score 8 stage points by finishing 3rd. At the end of the day though it was Jimmie Johnson who finished best of the bubble drivers in 3rd with William Byron in 4th. However, thanks to his 13 stage points compared to Johnsons five, Byron outscored Johnson by seven points, moving him back above the cut-off line, for now. The rest of the bubble drivers had an intense battle among themselves further back, fighting it out for every single point they could get and in the end Clint Bowyer finished 16th, Matt DiBenedetto 17th, Tyler Reddick 18th and Erik Jones finished 20th. This drops Reddick out of the playoff battle, putting him in a must win situation going into Daytona.

With just one race left of the 2020 regular season, things couldn’t be more intense. And with the final race being at Daytona, absolutely anything can happen. And remember, a surprise win by somebody below the cut-off line at Daytona will shake things up even more. So these guys are basically racing for 15th place to be “safe”. All in all, there is 60 points to race for at Daytona, so each of these drivers will probably have a slightly different approach to the race, but in the end they will all have to be there at the end if they want to have a shot at getting in to the playoffs.

Here is the current playoff battle: (numbers in brackets are points gained or lost at Dover)
14. Clint Bowyer +57 (-9)
15. Matt DiBenedetto +9 (-57)
16. William Byron +4 (-21)
17. Jimmie Johnson -4 (+21)
18. Erik Jones -50 (-15)

Before Daytona I will give you my predictions on the most unpredictable race of the season, so stay tuned.

/Linus Broström

Great upsets at treatures Daytona

The expectations were high going in to the first ever NASCAR race at the Daytona road course, but with no practice for either of the main series, I think most people were expecting three massive wreck fests. Thankfully that wasn’t the case, but at the same time the racing wasn’t as good as I think most people were expecting either. Going to a brand-new track for most of these drivers and not giving them a single lap of practice was bound to make the races somewhat spread out, specially at the front of the field. Then again that tends to happen at most road courses anyways. I just think if they would have given the drivers 30 minutes of practice, the racing would’ve been a lot better. I was personally very positively surprised as to how clean the racing was, and how much great racing we still got to see throughout the field. Even though the front was somewhat spread out at times, there were still some really intense battles going on throughout each of the races.

In the Xfinity race on Saturday we saw a lot of cars slightly missing the entry to the back straight chicane, causing a couple of splitters to dig into the mud and literally send them flying over the track towards the infield barrier. Austin Cindric pretty much dominated the race, scoring and impressive 59 of the possible 60 points and his fifth win in six races. In the Truck race on Sunday, Sheldon Creed survived the late carnage and won following a green-white-checkered, also scoring 59 points. Then on Sunday afternoon Chase Elliott showed off his road course skills, capitalising on Martin Truex Jr. pit road speeding penalty and scored his third straight road course win. Denny Hamlin was right on Elliott’s rear bumper throughout the last three lap shoot-out but was never able to get close enough to make a move, so Hamlin had to settle for 2nd, with Truex in 3rd.

Further back behind those guys though there were some great performances by other driver we don’t normally see score a lot of points in the Cup Series, along with some of the playoff contenders racking up decent amount of points. Jimmie Johnson finished 4th with 8 stage points, Chris Buescher finished 5th, Clint Bowyer in 6th with 16 stage points, Kaz Grala who subbed for Austin Dillon finished 7th in his first ever Cup race, William Byron in 8th with 11 stage points and Michael McDowell finished 10th. Looking at the rest of the playoff bubble drivers we had Eric Jones in 11th, Matt DiBenedetto in 15th, Tyler Reddick in 18th and Kyle Busch in 37th. Now you may wonder why I would include Kyle, but with his misfortunes in recent weeks, he is only 100 points clear of the cut-off line, and should someone currently below the cut-off win either of the remaining three races, that gap is down to 75 points.

Here is the current playoff battle: (numbers in brackets are points gained or lost at Daytona)

13. Kyle Busch +100 (-40)
14. Clint Bowyer +66 (+6)
15. Matt DiBenedetto +66 (+9)
16. William Byron +25 (+1)
17. Jimmie Johnson -25 (+1)
18. Erik Jones -35 (-9)
19. Tyler Reddick -57 (-21)

The remaining three regular season races for the NASCAR Cup Series is a double header at Dover and a 400 miles race at the Daytona oval. So, coming out of Dover, all these seven drivers will be looking to be well clear of 16th place, as an upset winner at Daytona would move the cut-off line up. Unless of course, they can go out there and grab a win at Dover.

Later this week we will take a look at the Rookie of the Year battle as we are approaching the ⅔ mark of the season. Who’s done what, who’s been good where and who is in the best position to win this year’s title. I will also do my best to analyse next years schedule as soon as that is released, but as it stands now, that will probably not be released for at least another couple of weeks.

/Linus Broström

Sweeps, rain tires and a square cone

Another great weekend of racing is behind us. We started off with the Trucks at Michigan, where Zane Smith scored his first victory following a last lap pass in double overtimes. He was running 16th with just over ten laps to go, but with all the carnage at the end, he managed to find his way through the field, and with a last lap pass, take the checkered flag just 0.318 ahead of Christian Eckes.

On Saturday the Xfinity Series lined up at Road America and following a lengthy thunder delay halfway through stage one, we were treated to an amazing race where we saw the rain tires being used for the first time since Montréal 2008. The track dried up before too long though and eventually things were back to normal with the usual suspects at the front. Austin Cindric won the race closely followed by AJ Allmendinger and Chase Briscoe, with Kaz Grala in 4th and Andy Lally in 5th.

Then there was the NASCAR double header. Kevin Harvick pretty much dominated both races from start to finish, winning both and taking three out of the four stages. On Saturday we had the first points race in the Cup Series with the choose rule, and I think it’s a great thing. It lets the drivers dictate their own destiny in terms of where they start and it certainly shakes things up a bit. One example is a late restart where Austin Dillon was running 11th, but since only two drivers ahead of his choose the bottom, he went left of the orange box painted on the track and restarted 5th. Early in the race however it became clear that Kevin Harvick was going to be the driver to beat, and it seemed like nobody could stop him. We did get a few cautions at the end though with some questionable lane choices on the restarts, but in the end Harvick was way too good on the outside line for anyone to be able to stay ahead of him, so lane choice probably didn’t matter to much on that matter anyways.

On Sunday Clint Bowyer won stage one, mainly thanks to the inverted top 20 from Saturdays race, putting him 2nd on the grid with Harvick all the way back in 20th. Early in the final stage it looked like Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola was going to able be in contention to beat Harvick, but when Blaney took the lead, Keselowski came with a huge run into turn one, drove under him and lost the car, causing both Penske Racing Fords to retire from the race. From that point on it was pretty much all Harvick to the end. Denny Hamlin put up a good fight at the end, but with the current aero package there was really nothing he could do to pass Harvick.

Thankfully we had the bubble battle to follow in both these races which really kept the excitement up throughout. Going into the Michigan double-header the gap from 14th down to 19th was 59 points. Clint Bowyer who came in on top had a decent Saturday race running most of it just around the 10th position, scoring two stage points. In the final stage he lost a bit of speed and dropped down to finish 19th, which in terms let him start 2nd on Sunday. This allowed him to win stage one, finish 5th in stage two and eventually score a 14th place finish.

The most impressive of the bubble drivers this weekend was by far Eric Jones, who despite being told this week he is not returning to Joe Gibbs Racing next year, put in a great performance, scoring a total of 22 stage points and an 11th place finish on Saturday. On Sunday he ran in to some issues late which dropped him from 6th place all the way down to 27th in just the last 35 laps. So despite having a really good weekend at Michigan, those last 35 laps meant the gap up to 16th in the standings barely changed at all.

The rest of the drivers currently in the battle for the final three playoff spots had varying days. William Byron and Matt DiBenedetto finished 14th and 15th respectively on Saturday with no stage points. Then on Sunday they DiBenedetto finished 7th with seven stage points while Dyron finished 12th with five stage points. Jimmie Johnson stayed just outside the top 10 both races, scoring just one stage point and finishing 12th and 11th, while Reddick had a miserable weekend. His 18th place finish on Saturday meant he was due to start 3rd on Sunday, but after having to go to a back-up car, he started at the rear and was never able to recover, finishing 24th with no stage points.

Here is the current playoff battle: (numbers in brackets are points gained or lost at Michigan)

14. Clint Bowyer +60 (+17)
15. Matt DiBenedetto +57 (+17)
16. William Byron +26 (+11)
17. Erik Jones -26 (+5)
18. Jimmie Johnson -26 (-1)
19. Tyler Reddick -36 (-21)

One thing to remember is that an upset win by anybody below the cut off line means that it moves up one position, as long as that winner is top 30 in points. Since this has already happened twice with Austin Dillon (17th) and Cole Custer (21st), these guys are essentially battling for 14th position in points to make the play off cut of 16 drivers. With the last four races being the brand-new (for NASCAR) Daytona Road Course, a double header at Dover and finally the Daytona Oval, really anything can happen. Specially that final race could very well produce and upset winner in Bubba Wallace (20th),  Chris Buescher (23rd), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (24th), Ryan Newman (26th), Matt Kenseth (28th) or even Ryan Preece (30th), which would blow this play-off battle wide open.

/Linus Broström

2021 silly season predictions

As if all the crazy things that have happened during the 2020 season wasn’t enough, this season also has one of the biggest pools of drivers in a contract year that we’ve seen in a long time, and there are some very big names on that list too. About a month ago I reached out to Bob Pockrass from FOX Sports on twitter to see if I could get a complete list of all the drivers currently out of contract and which cars are without drivers for 2021, and thankfully he was right on it coming back to me with a list of 15 full-time rides, currently without a driver. Since then I have been trying to figure out who would fit where, what the different teams might be looking for and I’ve basically just been waiting for news of some sort of who is going where. And just as this entry was completed and getting ready to be posted, news started breaking about Brad Keselowski and Penske Racing coming to terms over a contract extension, which unfortunately cut out a big part of this article, as well as changed a lot of what I had predicted as possible driver moves.

Let’s start off by listing all the full-time cars currently without contracted drivers for next season: 10, 13, 14, 20, 21, 32, 34, 37, 38, 41, 42, 43, 48 and 96. This means that drivers like Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer and Bubba Wallace are all currently without a contract for next year. Add to that the group of drivers currently in the Xfinity Series looking to take a step up to the Cup Series. Drivers like Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric will most certainly end up in one of these seats, Noah Gragson and Brandon Jones will most likely be looking to do the same. This entry I will focus on some of the main drivers and cars going into this silly season, then summarize the rest at the end. If you don’t fancy reading it all, here is a full list of what changes I believe will be made for 2021, along with some second choices for most cars.

Current driverCar 2021 DriverSecond choices
Brad Keselowski2Brad Keselowski (conf.) 
Aric Almirola10Aric Almirola 
Ty Dillon13Ty DillonBrennan Poole
Clint Bowyer14Chase Briscoe (R)*Kyle Larson, Clint Bowyer
Erik Jones20Cristopher BellErik Jones, Bubba Wallace
Matt DiBenedetto21Austin Cindric (R)*Bubba Wallace
Corey LaJoie32Brennan PooleTimmy Hill
Michael McDowell34Erik Jones 
Ryan Preece37Clint BowyerNoah Gragson (R)*, Timmy Hill
John Hunter Nemechek38Corey LaJoieRyan Preece
Cole Custer41Cole CusterChase Briscoe (R)*
Matt Kenseth42Bubba WallaceMatt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer
Bubba Wallace43Matt DiBenedettoNoah Gragson (R)*
Jimmie Johnson48John Hunter NemechekClint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto
Daniel Suarez96Daniel SuarezBrandon Jones (R)*
*(R) = Rookies

#48 Hendrick Motorsports – Starting off with probably the biggest question mark on everyone’s minds on this matter, -Who will replace the 7-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in the 48 car? This has been the one that’s been hardest for me to figure out. Should HMS decide to put a younger driver in this car, that would leave Alex Bowman as the oldest driver of the team at 27 years old. Chevrolet has been a little bit behind for the last few seasons now, and with Johnson retiring I think the only reasonable way to go would be to get someone with experience in there to help both the team and the other younger drivers to develop. In my mind that only leaves somebody like Clint Bowyer or potentially Justin Allgaier who served as Johnson’s replacement at Indianapolis earlier this season. Though I do not see either of those drivers getting that ride. If they want to go with a younger driver and focus solely on speed, I think the driver with the best shot at the #48 is John Hunter Nemechek. But who knows, they might even go with Matt DiBenedetto. Then there are also the rumours that Hendrick might be cutting the team down to just three cars, getting rid of the #88 and moving Alex Bowman to the #48. I hope this will stay a rumour, as I don’t see either RCR or Chip Ganassi Racing adding a third car for next year, thus leaving us with one less competitive car on the track.

Brad Keselowski – Just as this entry was finished, Keselowski signed a new deal with Penske Racing to continue driving the #2 car. Considering the success he has had this season, scoring three wins and sitting 2nd in points, that was to be expected.

Aric Almirola – Going into this season I thought Aric would be the first driver to leave Stewart-Haas Racing due to lack of good results, but boy has he proven me wrong. He may not have a win yet, but he’s currently 8th in points, highest of all winless drivers, and he’s on a streak right now of nine straight top-10 finishes. Every week I wait for him to win a race, and as soon as that happens, I am sure he will have a contract extension on the table. If for some reason that were to not happen, he can end up literally anywhere.

Clint Bowyer – As much as I love this guy, I just don’t see him staying at Stewart-Haas. I really hope I’m wrong on this one, but I feel like SHR will have to move Chase Briscoe up from the Xfinity Series after this year, and with Cole Custer being a rookie this year, having already scored his first career win, I don’t see him going anywhere. Unfortunately, I don’t know where Bowyer would end up should he have to leave SHR, but the only two potential cars I see for him are either the #37 or possibly the #48 with some luck. He has expressed a desire to get into broadcasting when his career is over, but also said that he does not feel like his racing career is over yet. However, if he can’t get in a top tier car, I think he’s going to call it quits.

Matt DiBenedetto – This is another driver that can end up literally anywhere. He has a love for racing unlike anybody else in the field, but for some reason he just can not seem to get the sponsorship deals some of these other drivers can. For now I will put him in the #43, as they will be looking to get as good a driver as possible for that car, but I believe he is a second choice for a lot of other cars, like the #42, #48, #14 or possibly even the #20 over at Joe Gibbs Racing.

John Hunter Nemechek – Still in his rookie season, but he has proven that he is a good race car driver. Time and time again he’s outperforming the equipment he’s in, and I believe that has opened up a lot of doors for him going into 2021. If he can just get the sponsorship for it, I would put him in the #48, despite what I said earlier about them being best off putting an older driver in that car. If he doesn’t get the #48, he’s another one of those drivers that could go anywhere, like the #14, #20, #42 or #43.

Bubba Wallace – Richard Petty Motorsports have publicly said that they have offered a new contract to Wallace, which would include part ownership of the team, but with his current market value I think he will take his shot at moving to the #42. He says he has a lot of offers on the table, but I just can’t see any of the other top teams to have put themselves on that list.

Kyle Larson – One of the best race car drivers out there. Unfortunately he is currently suspended by NASCAR, but should he ask to get reinstated and brought back, the only person who I believe would take him on is Tony Stewart, which would most likely see Larson driving the #14 in 2021. There are probably smaller teams who would love to do the same, but I don’t see Larson coming back unless it’s in one of the fastest cars.

#20 Joe Gibbs Racing – I think this one has flown under many peoples radars, but with JGR being the best performing organisation in the Cup Series over the last few years, this is probably one of the most wanted rides of the 2021 silly season. Currently driven by Erik Jones, who is 43 points below the cut-off line, and despite several top-5 finishes this season, just haven’t been able to get the consistent finishes you would expect out of that car. Who will end up In this ride obviously depends a lot on what is going to happen with the #95, but I believe we will see Christopher Bell in the #20 next season.

There are obviously plenty of other things to go through as well, but I don’t want to make this too long, so here’s a quick summary of the other most highly anticipated cars and drivers. We’ve got Ty Dillon who will need to catch a break soon if he wasn’t to evolve his career. Tyler Reddick, who despite being contracted by RCR might get bought out of that contract and put in a top tier car. Will Daniel Suarez get another chance at a good ride? How many rookies will we eventually see from the Xfinity Series? And finally, Levine Family Racing is rumoured to be wanting to sell the business, which would mean that the #95 is either moving or disappearing all together, which means Cristopher Bell is potentially on the market, should he not get moved to the #20.

To sum it all up in short, the 2021 silly season will be one of the best in a long time. As drivers and cars starts getting paired up for next year, we’ll go back to this list and see what’s happening, and I’ll probably make some minor adjustments depending on the first few announcements that are made. The main pieces to this whole puzzle though are obviously #2, #48 and Kyle Larson, and what happens to those three pieces will dictate a large portion of what is going to happen with the rest.