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.