Friday 5: Those with best shot to win their way into playoffs at Daytona

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Thirteen drivers outside a playoff spot could win their way into the playoff field Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). 

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the only winless drivers in a playoff spot after Kurt Busch withdrew his playoff waiver. If there’s a new winner Saturday — and they are in the top 30 in points — Blaney or Truex would be eliminated from title contention.

Seven of those 13 drivers who could move into a playoff spot have won a Cup race at Daytona: Erik JonesAric AlmirolaAustin DillonJustin HaleyMichael McDowellRicky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

Of the six remaining playoff-eligible drivers who have not won at Daytona, Bubba Wallace has finished second there three times, including the last two races, and Chris Buescher’s best finish is third. Others who could make the playoffs with a win Saturday night are Cole CusterHarrison BurtonTy Dillon and Todd Gilliland.

Here’s a look at five drivers outside a playoff spot who could win their way into the postseason and knock either Blaney or Truex out:

1. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski started the year, his first as co-owner of RFK Racing, with the goal of having both cars make the playoffs. Neither car is in a playoff spot with one race left in the regular season. 

But Daytona is one of the team’s best tracks.

Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each won their qualifying race at Daytona in February. Keselowski led a race-high 67 laps in the Daytona 500, but he also triggered two accidents. 

Drivers and teams were trying to figure out the car and what they could and couldn’t do in February. They now have a better understanding of the car. Keselowski’s pushes and driving style could work better this weekend. 

Keselowski has one win at Daytona and six at Talladega. Those seven superspeedway victories are the most among active drivers. Denny Hamlin is next with five superspeedway wins. 

Also at stake for Keselowski is keeping his winning streak going. He has won at least one Cup race 11 consecutive seasons. The last time he went winless in a Cup season was 2010 — the final year of Jimmie Johnson’s five consecutive series titles. 

NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations Duel #1 at Daytona
Brad Keselowski won his qualifying race at Daytona in February and led the most laps in the Daytona 500. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

2. Bubba Wallace

He won at Talladega in the playoffs last year and finished second in this year’s Daytona 500, the second time he’s been the runner-up at Daytona.

Wallace enters Saturday confident. He had four top-10 finishes before a 13th at Richmond and a 35th at Watkins Glen. The Richmond finish was one spot off his career-best Cup result at that track. He failed to finish at Watkins Glen because of a mechanical issue. 

After coming so close before at Daytona, Wallace has the road map on what it takes to get to the front.

“We just have to make sure we are there at the end, whatever that race may provide,” he said. “If you’re inside the top five with two or three (laps) to go, then you have a really good shot at winning. That’s our goal. Let’s get to three to go and make sure we’re in that spot, and then we go and fight.”

Bubba Wallace
Bubba Wallace after his second-place finish in the 2022 Daytona 500. (Photo: Dustin Long)

3. Michael McDowell 

The 2021 Daytona 500 winner has a good track record on the superspeedways. 

He is one of three drivers with top-10 finishes at both Daytona and Talladega this season. The other two drivers are points leader Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch. 

McDowell has five top 10s in his last 10 Daytona starts. Only twice during that time has he failed to finish.

A win to earn a playoff spot would add to what has been McDowell’s best season in his Cup career, which began in 2008. He has a career-high 10 top 10s. That figure is one more top 10 than he earned in 2020 and ’21 combined. 

Daytona 500 Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell celebrating his 2021 Daytona 500 win. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He was running toward the front late in this year’s Daytona 500 before a push from Brad Keselowski turned him and ended his race. 

Stenhouse’s two career Cup victories came on superspeedways in 2017. He won at Daytona and Talladega that year to make the playoffs, racing for what was then known as Roush Fenway Racing.

Since winning at Daytona in 2017, Stenhouse has failed to finish in the top 10 there in nine races. He’s led laps in six of those events. 

So how can he avoid trouble and have a chance to win Saturday?

“A lot of the times, I feel like, when you ride around (at the back), you can get a really good finish, but I feel like nobody that rides around generally wins,” he said. “I feel like you’ve kind of got to be in the mix all day, so that when you get down to the end, you know what moves to make.” 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. celebrates his Daytona win in 2017. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

5. Austin Dillon 

Since his 2018 Daytona 500 win, Dillon has had only two top-10 finishes at that track, but he knows how to get to the front.

Dillon anticipates getting his share of help Saturday but also knows it only goes so far.

“Getting the 3 car in (the playoffs) would be a huge feat for RCR right now,” Dillon said. “I think I’ll definitely have a lot of help from (teammate Tyler Reddick) and some of our Chevy affiliates, but when someone has the opportunity to win, they don’t blink on it.”

Austin Dillion after winning the 2018 Daytona 500. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)