It was a must win for many drivers Saturday night at Daytona as the hunt to make the NASCAR Cup playoffs entered its final race. A lot of potential scenarios were in play for a number of drivers. But in the end, a driver already in the playoffs won and ended the playoff hopes for the rest.
Chris Buescher won his third race of the season and continued to show the way back for RFK Racing. While Buescher was fast, he had a more than willing pushing partner in the form of teammate and owner Brad Keselowksi that ensured his win and both RFK cars making it into the playoffs.
The early race was run clean and green with battles back and for the between Ford and Toyota leading the race. Martin Truex, Jr. and Christopher Bell made it one-two in Stage 1 for Joe Gibbs Racing and led 5 Toyota’s in the Top. Playoff hopeful Daniel Suarez was the lone Chevy in the Top 10.
Stage 2 saw all heck break loose as drivers were 3- and 4-wide on the narrow banks of Daytona. As is often the case these days, it is the leaders that eventually create the Big One, not the guys racing and battling to break out of the pack. This time Ty Gibbs got loose in Turn 4 after a slight bump from teammate Bell. That sent Gibbs into the rear of leader Ryan Blaney who hit the wall hard and started a melee that collected 16 cars. Amazingly, only 7 cars were out of the race from that wreck and Brad Keselowski wound up winning Stage 2.
When the reduced field went back to green, it looked like the race would finish without another major interruption until Ryan Preece got a shove and flew across the infield where his car went into a terrifying barrel roll flipping at least 10 times before the car landed back on its wheels. The ensuing red flag gave rescuers time to get Preece from his car and transported to a local hospital for observation. It’s been many years since NASCAR has seen a wreck like that with everything they have done to keep the cars on the track and not in the air.
The final overtime restart saw Kevin Harvick unable to get past the RFK teammates to grab his first win of the year and his final at Daytona. The RFK 1-2 finish was the first for the organization since 2014.
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Things of note: Most Popular driver out of the playoffs
Chase Elliott did about all he could to contend but expert blocking by Harvick kept him from being able to battle for the lead. Harvick did what you should do, eliminate your competition any way you can. Harvick heads into the playoffs as only one of three drivers without a win: Bubba Wallace and Keselowski the other two.
Other playoff hopefuls still have to manage to find a way to win this season to keep momentum into 2024. What was a nice Top 5 or 10 finish at Daytona doesn’t really matter. Making it tough on the 16 playoff drivers is job one right now. While the playoff bound drivers will expect a lot of give vs take, that extends only so far. The other 16 drivers will be battling for their very future with their teams and a win is still a win over the next 10 races.
Next up: Darlington
Kevin Harvick won this race in 2020 and is the top average finisher in the last 8 Darlington races.
The top lap leader is Kyle Larson but he has yet to turn that into Darlington trophies.
In the last 8 races, Harvick and Denny Hamlin lead with 2 track wins. William Byron won the spring race this year and Eric Jones is the defending race winner.
MTJ likes Darlington and won in 2021 but he doesn’t have the best finishing record, case in point he sat on the pole this spring, led 145 laps but wrecked out near the end.
As happens in the playoffs, one bad race can spell doom for the rest of the round. I think Harvick will be decent this round to enable him to keep going. Drivers like Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Bubba Wallace and Michael McDowell will have their work cut out for them at Darlington, Kansas and Bristol.
Blaney, Bell, Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick will have to be at the top of their game the next three races to avoid being bubble drivers at Bristol. Even Brad Keselowski will need to be spot on to avoid elimination. And of course, racing luck can bite any driver at any time.
That’s my take, enjoy the playoffs and keep the shiny side up. Check out my past columns here.