DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kurt Busch’s decision to relinquish his playoff waiver creates a trickle-down effect that could alter Saturday’s Cup regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).
Simply, Ryan Blaney is in a better chance to make the playoffs. Martin Truex Jr. moves into the final playoff spot. Bubba Wallace, who needs a win to make the playoffs, will have an inexperienced teammate helping him.
Daytona marks the sixth consecutive race Busch has missed because of concussion-like symptoms since his July 23 crash in qualifying at Pocono Raceway.
“I know he’s frustrated, emotional about it,” 23XI Racing co-owner Denny Hamlin said of Busch. “We just want to support him in any way we can and give him the time off he needs to get better.”
With Busch out, Blaney has more control of his fate. He’s 25 points ahead of Truex, who holds the final transfer spot.
“I think our mindset is race like normal,” Blaney said Friday at Daytona. “Honestly, you always want to go up and try to win the race. You always want to get stage points. You always want to try to stay out of the wrecks. I don’t really see having any other thought process.
“If you play conservative, you can find yourself in a bad spot at the end of the race if you just ride around at the back and don’t get stage points.”
“I think we need to go race and try to stay at the front and try to get stage points,” he said.
There is a scenario where Truex could make the playoffs simply by pushing Blaney to the win. If Blaney won, Truex would make the playoffs because no one is close enough in points to take his playoff spot.
But the idea of a Toyota driver pushing a Ford driver to the win at Daytona?
“If (Blaney) ended up in front of me at the end, I wouldn’t have a problem pushing him,” Truex said. “I’m not going to push a guy that hasn’t won yet. So I mean, yeah, obviously, I’m going to do what I feel like is the best opportunity for me to win or be in position to win so that would probably be the best scenario. Push Blaney into the lead and pass him coming to the checkers.”
Wallace is one of 13 drivers not in a playoff spot who could make the playoffs by winning Saturday night. While Wallace has not won at Daytona, he has three runner-up finishes there, including in the last two Cup races at the 2.5-mile speedway.
One of the challenges for Wallace is the lack of Toyotas. With only six Toyotas among the 37-car field, Toyota drivers could be at a disadvantage at a track where it helps to have several cars pushing or controlling a line. He could be racing Truex, a Toyota teammate, for the final playoff spot.
Also, with Busch out, Wallace loses a teammate at 23XI Racing who has won a Daytona 500 and has 42 Cup starts at this track. In Busch’s place is 19-year-old Ty Gibbs — who was not born when Busch made his first Daytona 500 start in 2001. Gibbs has one Xfinity start on the Daytona oval.
“For him this weekend, this will be the first time in the pack and he gets no qualifying to feel how his car is,” Wallace said of Gibbs. “He just has to go and experience it.
“I’ll have a good conversation with him because he is a teammate. He’s not just a Toyota teammate, he’s a 23XI teammate. For us, our goal is to get the 23 car in the playoffs. If he can play a factor in that, we have to make sure he’s prepared for that.
“Ty has been great at understanding the process and the task at hand for each and every race. He said it in our meeting Monday, he’s committed to helping us out.”
Wallace said he’ll talk to Gibbs about his gameplan so Gibbs can better help.
“I’m excited for Saturday to see how he does,” Wallace said.