Daytona Cup storylines: Last spot, last shot

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The 16-driver NASCAR Cup Series playoff field will be finalized in Saturday night’s regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBC).

Last year saw Daytona host the regular season finale for the first time. William Byron scored his first career Cup win to make the playoffs, while Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto secured playoff berths on points.

Saturday, only the 16th and final playoff berth will be decided. Tyler Reddick holds it by 25 points over Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon.

To keep it, Reddick may have to do what Byron did one year ago. But Reddick does know what it takes to win at Daytona. He won the Feb. 2018 Xfinity race there after five overtime attempts and in the closest finish in NASCAR national series history (.0004 of a second).

But both drivers have the proverbial sword over their heads at Daytona. A win by anyone else behind the playoff cut line keeps both Reddick and Dillon out of the postseason.

Who can win from behind the cut line?

Among those behind the cut line, Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Erik Jones and Ryan Newman have won Cup races at Daytona.

Dillon (2018) and Newman (2008) are past Daytona 500 winners. Stenhouse (2017) and Jones (2018) have both won the Daytona summer race.

Jones’ victory was his first at the Cup level. Since then, three more drivers have broken through at Daytona: Justin Haley (July 2019), Byron (Aug. 2020), and Michael McDowell (2021 Daytona 500).

In regards to potential first-time winners on Saturday, there are several that come to mind.

DiBenedetto led at the white flag in the most recent superspeedway race at Talladega before finishing fifth. Ross Chastain finished seventh in this year’s Daytona 500. Bubba Wallace was the runner-up in the 2018 Daytona 500.

But perhaps the most intriguing story lies with Corey LaJoie. His sidelining from last weekend’s race at Michigan due to COVID-19 protocols led to fear among playoff-bound drivers of receiving the same fate while racing for a championship.

LaJoie returns this weekend with a waiver in hand to make the Cup playoffs if he wins. He’s finished inside the top 10 in three of his last four Daytona starts, including ninth in this year’s Daytona 500.

Kyle Larson on the verge

It took nearly all summer, but Kyle Larson tracked down and took the regular season points lead from Denny Hamlin.

Now, with one race to go, Larson is on the verge of claiming the regular season title and 15 valuable playoff points.

Larson can clinch by scoring 32 points Saturday, regardless of what Hamlin does.

Following the Mother’s Day race at Darlington Raceway, Larson – who finished second in the race behind Martin Truex Jr. – was 144 points behind Hamlin in the points.

Over the next 13 races, Larson gained 172 points on Hamlin and enters Daytona with a 28-point advantage over Hamlin. During that stretch, Larson earned four wins (three of them in succession) and finished no worse than 18th.

Hamlin can still clinch the regular season title but will need help to do so.

The three-time Daytona 500 winner is one of the best superspeedway racers in the series. In contrast, Larson has never posted a top-five finish in 14 Daytona Cup starts.

But according to Racing Insights, Hamlin has only gained at least 28 points on Larson in three races this season.

Locking down playoff points

Saturday’s race will also finalize the entire top 10 in the regular season standings, all of whom earn additional playoff points.

Second-place in the standings earns 10 playoff points. Third place earns eight playoff points. From there, the playoff points decline by one point, all the way down to 10th-place earning one playoff point.

Any number of playoff points could be the difference in advancing or being eliminated during the final 10 races.

Kyle Busch (838 points) currently holds third in the regular season standings. But he’s only five points up on fourth-place Byron (833). Fifth-place Chase Elliott (820) is in striking distance of both.

Things are similarly tight in the race for sixth. Martin Truex Jr. holds that position by just two points (789-787) over last week’s winner, Ryan Blaney. Joey Logano (772) is just 15 points back of Blaney.

The winless Kevin Harvick (756) and Brad Keselowski (729) are ninth and 10th in the regular season standings entering Daytona. Reddick (677) is 11th in those standings, 52 points behind Keselowski.