Chris Buescher knows what he needs to do Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. It’s just a matter of how to do it.
“I don’t have all the right answers here,” said Buescher, who needs to win to make the Cup playoffs. “I don’t know if I have even the wrong answers.
“I’m just trying to figure out what it is that we need to do to be there and hopefully have a little bit of luck on our side at the same time.”
That’s a question many will try to solve after the green flag waves for the Cup regular season finale (7 p.m. ET on NBC).
Saturday’s race sets the playoff field. One playoff spot remains. With 15 of the 40 starters needing a win to make the playoffs, the level of desperation will be high. That likely will lead to crashes.
Half the crashes in the last three Cup races at Daytona and Talladega have come either at the end of a stage or the end of the race.
Running at the front, though, doesn’t keep a driver out of trouble.
In the last four races at Daytona and Talladega, more than half of the multi-car crashes were triggered inside the top five.
Last year’s regular-season finale at Daytona had two crashes late in the race at the front.
The first came nine laps from the scheduled end. Tyler Reddick (No. 8) needed to win to make the playoffs. After diving below leader Kyle Busch, Reddick came up the track but forced Busch to brake to avoid hitting Reddick’s car. That caused chaos behind, leading to a 10-car incident.
“I played a big part in that excitement in the last Daytona cutoff race,” Reddick said. “I think you’ll expect to see drivers that were as desperate as I was in that race to try and get up front and get control of the race and win for their team and all their partners.”
Reddick enters Saturday’s race holding the final playoff spot. He leads Richard Childress Racing teammate by 25 points.
The second multi-car crash in last year’s regular season finale sent the race into overtime. This incident started at the front with contact between Denny Hamlin (No. 11) and Joey Logano (No. 22).
That led to Logano bouncing off of Bubba Wallace‘s car (No. 43). William Byron (No. 24) slipped between Logano and Wallace to take the lead. Logano, with a cut tire, spun, causing more chaos. Eleven cars were involved in that crash.
Byron would go on to win that race and secure a playoff spot.
“The move with the No. 22 and the No. 43 was really about the way that we were handling and the confidence I had to split the gap,” Byron said this week. “There was enough of a gap there to squeeze in and put it four-wide and that was definitely the race-winning move. I think a lot of it had to do with knowing our race car, being confident in the moves I could make, and then getting lucky that a tire didn’t go down when I kind of split the gap.”
The confidence to make such a move came over time for Byron. He admits he became more comfortable with speedway racing and worried less about wrecking.
“I feel like with plate racing, in 2018 and ’19 especially, I led some laps on those tracks and that was kind of the first ‘OK, I can do it,'” Byron said. “Early on, I led laps early in a race and then I started to lead them later and later as the intensity kind of got higher and higher. I started to realize, ‘Man, I just continue to kind of bump that speed up to where it’s closer and closer to the end’ and then I would wreck or get wrecked.
“I remember in the playoffs in October of ’19, we were actually in a good position to advance, leading the race and then got off center with a push and then got turned into (Logano). That was one of the hardest wrecks I’ve ever taken. I think I got hit driver’s side as I was going down the backstretch.
“That kind of was one of those moments of ‘OK, I’m close to winning these races. I just have to deal with the fact that I’m probably going to get hit pretty hard if I wreck.’ I just kind of got over that and started to be more and more aggressive and get that chance at the end to take chances and try to win.”
It worked for Byron last year. Will someone else win and earn their spot in the playoffs Saturday?
2. Entering the unknown
Saturday’s race marks the first with NASCAR’s new rules in response to keep cars on the ground after Joey Logano went airborne at Talladega earlier this season.
The cars are expected to go 7-10 mph slower than before.
The tapered spacer holes will be reduced from 57/64 of an inch to 53/64, cutting horsepower. NASCAR also removed the wicker from the spoiler to slow the cars.
The changes will make the cars drive differently. How much differently remains uncertain since there is no practice and qualifying this weekend.
“It’s entirely unknown,” Tyler Reddick said. “I can’t really say what it’s going to drive like. I think we’ve seen, in years past with previous generation cars, the draft being not as chaotic or unpredictable. But where we were, runs would kind of appear out of nowhere and once they would develop, they were very large runs and you could take them really far; farther than when I ran Xfinity or the Truck Series. The draft at times was not the same. There’s really nothing to go off of, I’d say.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is among those who must win to earn a playoff spot, said the changes will create different challenges for drivers.
“The runs will probably be not as big, not as quick,” he said. “So, on one hand, that’s nice. It’s a little safer and a little easier for us to race hard and maybe not make as many mistakes trying to block runs at the last minute.
“With that being said, I think it kind of goes back to some of the races that we’ve had where I feel like you are able to, once you get out front, you can kind of control the race a little bit better and you don’t have those big runs coming.
“So, we’ll just have to see it play out and use the first two stages to figure it out.”
3. Also looking for a win
While 15 drivers seek a win to make the playoffs Saturday night, Kevin Harvick, already bound for the playoffs, simply seeks his first win of the season.
After scoring nine victories last year, the turnaround is dramatic.
“I would say what’s going wrong is a very legitimate question,” team owner Tony Stewart told NBC Sports. “A hard part is we don’t know what’s going wrong. That’s why we’re still in this predicament.
“We’ve got some the best and smartest people in the sport and we’re all scratching our heads trying to figure out what is actually going on, but it’s not for the lack of effort. It’s not for me not being around the shop. The smarter people are the ones at the shop. Trust me, I’m not the one making the calls.”
Stewart and others have noted rule changes that took away an aero advantage the SHR cars had last season. Stewart also notes the parts freeze for teams with the Next Gen car debuting next season. The parts freeze is intended to keep teams from spending money to develop new parts that will only be used in a few races. By saving such money, it helps teams prepare for the costs in switching to the Next Gen car.
“I think there were some organizations and teams that were able to come up with some big things right before that freeze happened last year and it showed up at the very end of the season and has carried over to this year,” Stewart said. “We’re making the best with what we have right now.”
Even with those challenges, Harvick is tied for third in top 10s this season with 16. Kyle Larson has a series-high 18. Denny Hamlin has 17. William Byron and Kyle Busch are tied with Harvick.
The biggest difference, though, is Harvick’s six top-five finishes rank 10th in the series.
Stewart notes Harvick has had a key impact on those top-10 finishes even with a car that has struggled to show speed.
“There’s nothing that beats experience,” Stewart said. “That shows up on race weekends when we don’t have a car that can win the race. Kevin can find a way.
“If it’s a fifth-place car, he can get it to third. If it’s a 10th-place car, he might (get) seventh or eighth with it. He can find those little things that are what you have and what you find with experience that carries you through that.
“I think that’s why Kevin is one of those guys – if Kevin wanted to race until he was 55, he’s going to still be that good. He is still at the top of his game right now. We’re just not able to showcase that for him.”
4. Ready to go
Justin Haley, who won the Daytona Cup race in July 2019, hasn’t had the chance to run toward the front throughout most of the speedway races. That’s because Spire Motorsports takes a methodical approach. It seeks to protect its cars before the final laps.
Haley, who is a teammate to Corey LaJoie, said things will be different Saturday night.
“For the Cup race this week, I’m really excited because Spire Motorsports has graciously allowed me to be able to race all night,” Haley said. “We have a really strong Hendrick engine that we lease. I’m looking forward to the Cup race because I’m going to be able to get up there in the draft and play around with the big guys and try to execute a Cup win.”
With one more speedway race left after this weekend for this car before the Next Gen car debuts next season, it’s easier for teams to be more aggressive.
“What we’re kind of seeing, we’re getting to the last road course race, the last speedway race of this generation car,” said Haley, who won one Daytona and two Talladega Xfinity Series races last year. “As we kind of get later in the season, I think the reins are going to be a little looser for me.
“We’re not going to use these cars again. If we completely destroy a car, it is what it is. I appreciate (team owners) Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr this weekend – they said, ‘Here is the best of the best and go do whatever you want.’ I’m really looking forward to that.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think I’ve got to go up there and get in the draft and earn the respect and be able to race with the top Cup guys and also be safe and make it to the end of the race.”
5. Debut weekend
This weekend marks the debut of Frank Kelleher as president of Daytona International Speedway.
Kelleher, who previously was NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief Sales Officer, says he’s been busy preparing for fans this weekend and looking ahead to upcoming events, including the next year’s Rolex 24 and Daytona 500.
His tenure begins in a time of COVID-19 protocols and challenges unlike those in any other sports.
“For the sport to allow us to have fans in the facility, there are a lot of smart people around me that are making that decision because they know that keeping the fans safe, the competitors safe, the employees safe is the No. 1 priority,” Kelleher told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan.
As is the norm at sporting venues, fans in the stands and display area are not required to wear a mask at Daytona. Those in a suite or club level will be required to wear a mask at the track.
One of the challenges for Kelleher is promoting an event under these conditions. Previously, Daytona might have multiple drivers do in-person media events leading to the race promote it. Those ways have changed.
“We need to protect everyone’s health in the sport, particularly the drivers,” Kelleher said. “We just need to take a deep breath and take a step back and say ‘Let’s think long term. Let’s think Phoenix Championship Weekend. Let’s make sure we’re doing everything we can, that our athletes are healthy, our crew chiefs are healthy, everyone jumping over the wall is healthy.’
“So if we need to dial things back like that now, I know it’s not what I want or the fans want, but it’s the right thing to do at this moment. We all just need to continue to band together. It’s a moment in time.
“We have to believe there will come a day we can have drivers visiting suites, but that doesn’t worry me. What we’ve learned through the pandemic of Zoom, Teams virtual calls, I think we’re all able to pivot. I feel our fan base understand that and roll with the punches with us.”
One such way that teams and sponsors are reaching fans is through online promotions.
Mobil 1, a sponsor at Stewart-Haas Racing, has the Mobil 1 Thousand sweepstakes (fans can sign up at Mobil1Thousand.com). If a team using Mobil 1 wins a Cup race, a fan can win a weekly prize of $1,000 or more. Should a driver using Mobil 1 win the Cup title, a fan could win $15,000.
“To have a partner like Mobil 1 that’s willing to think outside of the box and have a promotion like this that gives back to the race fans is something that is really crucial for our sport right now,” car owner Tony Stewart said.