The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series regular season comes to a close Saturday night with the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Daytona International Speedway.
Thirteen playoff spots have officially been locked up, and Clint Bowyer needs three points (in the event of a new winner) to lock himself into the field. Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson are separated by nine points with two of the three likely to make the postseason if a previous 2020 winner makes his way to Victory Lane at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Past Daytona winners, such as Erik Jones, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth, are in win-or-go-home mode.
Anything can happen at “The World Center of Racing,” and with the back of the playoff picture far from settled, NASCAR.com’s Chase Wilhelm and RJ Kraft look at which driver outside the bubble is most likely to race his way into the playoffs when the checkered flag is waved at the high banks of Daytona.
Wilhelm: For Erik Jones, a win at Daytona on Saturday night would mean worlds more than just a postseason slot.
Jones will be a free agent at season’s end after it was announced Aug. 6 he would not return to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021. The 24-year-old’s will to prove something under the lights at the 2.5-mile superspeedway is two-fold. One, he wants to show potential car owners he has what it takes to win and make the NASCAR Playoffs under a high-pressure situation. Two, it could serve as a little self-gratification to show Toyota and JGR what they’re going to miss out on now.
Aside from his drive to make something happen in his final 11 races in the No. 20 car, Jones’ first career NASCAR Cup Series victory also came in the second race at Daytona back in July 2018. Along with that success, Jones also nabbed the checkered flag in the Busch Clash at Daytona to begin the 2020 season, while also finishing fifth at Talladega Superspeedway in June.
If you’re looking for a driver outside the bubble to sneak up on everyone and win, Jones is your guy.
Kraft: Jones certainly has done it here before — both at Daytona and grabbing a win late in the regular season (at Darlington last year). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. feels like the obvious choice given his 2017 win in the summer here (“America, 1776, we are the champs“), but his propensity to be all or nothing at this track has me looking elsewhere.
I’m taking Chris Buescher. Why Buescher, you ask? The driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford — Stenhouse’s former car — finished third in the 2020 Daytona 500 and is one of four drivers — Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are the others — to finish in the top 10 in both superspeedway races so far in 2020. His 4.5 average finish at superspeedways this year is third-best among full-time drivers. Daytona has seen some strong runs out of him in recent years with three top fives and four top 10s in his last six starts. To dive into the loop data, he had the sixth-best average running position at Daytona in February.
Taking Buescher also aligns me with the Fords who have mastered the strength in numbers approach needed to succeed in this type of racing. The Roush Fenway superspeedway program showed its strength with Stenhouse in 2017 and recent superspeedway runs by Buescher and Newman — who was running top three in the closing laps of the 2020 Daytona 500 before a last-lap wreck have continued that solid performance.