Tonight’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 in Daytona (7 p.m. ET on NBC) represents the final chance at a regular-season win, and thus the final opportunity for a playoff spot.
A potential winner-take-all scenario is ripe with legitimate contenders among 2021’s non-winners. But among those who’ve yet to punch their playoff ticket, a select few have a competitive enough brand of speed.
A statistical measure with a sneaky historical importance at Daytona, the fastest car is victorious on the 2.5-mile drafting track 15% of the time. That’s less significant than the typical 40% rate, but it serves an advantage nonetheless. The fastest car earned a top-three finish in 35% of Daytona races dating back to 2005.
Last year’s race winner, William Byron, had the fastest car in the race, according to timing and scoring data. Dating back to the 2020 Daytona 500, the winner in each of the last six drafting races ranked among the 18 fastest cars.
With that in mind, here is a look at five drivers with intriguing drafting track speed and result-getting bona fides in advance of tonight’s cutoff contest:
The conclusion of Daytona’s second qualifying race in February saw a remarkable feat of driving from eventual winner Austin Dillon, a dive past leader Bubba Wallace from the high groove to the low groove:
That final lap, in one swoop, perhaps gave us the two most realistic sleepers for tonight’s Coke Zero 400.
Dillon’s recent advantage on drafting tracks isn’t so much that he’s fast — he ranks a fair ninth in average median lap time this season — as he is willing. He’s already on the record with his goal of grabbing early stage points in an effort to win the 16th and final playoff spot. That’d require him to find the front of the field at some point during the first stage. He’ll start 27th tonight, due in part to his accident last week in Michigan, so this means he’ll give up positions with the lowest crash inclusion rates in favor of possible points that, for all we know, could become irrelevant on the final lap. Even with a cache of stage points, he’ll need to hover near the front in the waning laps, as tonight’s win could become a zero-sum game.
It’d be an easy tactic to dismiss if it didn’t work for him so well in February; he finished third in the Daytona 500 but went home with the most points, some of which came from his win in the qualifying race. But if he’s true to his word, it sounds as if he’s attempting to corner every angle in an effort to clinch the playoff spot.
For the plan to work, he’ll have to remain in the front of the field for practically the entirety of the race.
If there’s any niche in 23XI Racing’s young existence, it might be drafting. Wallace has long been a sturdy finisher on drafting tracks — he finished 17th or better in seven of his eight career Daytona starts. But now, it seems, he has race-winning speed.
Aside from Wallace’s second-place finish in his Daytona qualifier, he recorded the second-fastest lap time of the Daytona 500. He also had the seventh-fastest median lap in the 500 and the fastest lap time in April’s race at Talladega (his median lap ranked 11th). That’s a new development for Wallace, but there is still more room for personal growth.
Wallace’s one lap led at Daytona in February is his only lap led across 1,404 laps at the track, which does give pause in regarding the possibility of defending a late lead if he secured one well in advance of the finish. Surely, he’s going to have his work cut out for him regardless of how the race culminates. But an early lead tonight, while presenting significant risk, could also go a long way for him in nailing the timing of a blocking style that’s key to successful drafting track outings.
Tyler Reddick enters tonight’s race with a 25-point lead on Dillon for the final playoff spot. Of all tracks, Daytona could reveal the fragility of that buffer in the blink of an eye.
It’s best for Reddick to just go on and win the race outright, a proposition difficult in execution but not impossible, especially given what we’ve seen from the 25-year-old in both the Truck Series (he won at Daytona in 2015) and Xfinity Series (he won at Daytona in 2018). That affinity for winning has yet to translate to Cup, made painfully obvious in last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400:
After an ill-timed move of his ignited a 10-car accident, Reddick is surely now aware he’s a small fish in a big pond of experienced drafters, though it should be noted that his moment of misguided daring came near the front of the field late in the race. He’s not a shabby mover through traffic, with a nose for getting to the front, despite his past errors. And crew chief Randall Burnett offers ample support in his traversing through the running order.
Burnett’s 25 positions earned this season via green-flag pit cycles on drafting tracks is more than any other crew chief in the Cup Series. Taking track position unconventionally, without having to actually drive through Daytona’s havoc-filled middle layer, could help Reddick mitigate risk while keeping him in play for the overall race win.
Ranked fourth in average median lap time across Daytona and Talladega, Ryan Preece is among the fastest drivers in the draft. Quietly, he’s become JTG Daugherty Racing’s most consistent drafting track threat — stable mate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has gone five races without securing a lead-lap finish better than 32nd.
And while Stenhouse might be still be the savvier drafter of the two, Preece’s record at these facilities is reminiscent of Michael McDowell’s stability prior to his Daytona 500 win. In all five of Preece’s starts at Talladega, he finished on the lead lap, and that brand of staying power placed him into position to benefit from Chevrolet’s late strategy designs last February. As a result, he finished sixth in the 500.
Preece’s future, both with JTG Daugherty and in the Cup Series, is still in limbo. A victory, one that’d launch a non-chartered program into the playoffs, would be a well-timed morale-boosting endeavor.
It’s entirely fair to question Stewart-Haas Racing’s season to date — co-owner Tony Stewart literally did that himself earlier this week — but the program’s efforts on drafting tracks cannot be argued. Until his win last month in New Hampshire, Aric Almirola was a trendy pick to lock himself into the playoffs via tonight’s race — and he still makes a fine sleeper choice — by virtue of his performance in February. He won the first Duel qualifier, a contest in which he led 87 percent of the race. Kevin Harvick, too, was pleased with the machine SHR provided him for Speedweeks:
She’s bad fast. Good night.
— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) February 12, 2021
But after both the 500 and Talladega, the fastest SHR drafting car belonged to Cole Custer, whose median lap time at Talladega ranked ninth, while his fastest lap ranked fifth among the best laps from each driver. He finished 10th in the race, one of his two top-10 finishes this season.
While Custer indeed completed every lap at Daytona and Talladega this year — already an improvement over 2020 in which he finished just one of four races — he’ll require a lot more than staying power to claim his first drafting track win in any series. Some assistance in this regard may come from crew chief Mike Shiplett.
Shiplett’s positional output on green-flag pit cycles ranks among the best across the last two seasons. He’s earned Custer 14 spots this year on drafting tracks, including a pivotal sixth-to-third jump in the final, deciding cycle of this year’s Daytona 500, a race in which Ford utilizes a manufacturer-wide effort to seize front-running spots in advance of the final run.