Daytona Cup storylines: Last spot, last shot


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.

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.


Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction


NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”