Prediction for Daytona Cup race? Unpredictability

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In such an unpredictable season, to even think one knows what will happen in tonight’s Cup regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway is an exercise in futility. 

The only thing to know about tonight’s race (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) is that the 13 drivers who can move into a playoff spot with a win were reminded just how one night can change a season.

All they have to do is look at Jeremy Clements, who won the rain-delayed Xfinity race that ended in the third overtime at 1:28 a.m. ET Saturday. It was only his second Xfinity win. The first came five years ago to the day at Road America. Even so, he’s going to be in the Xfinity playoffs. 

MORE: Details for Saturday’s Cup race 

Daytona already provides each driver in the field hope but Clements gives more credence to how close some drivers could be to the playoffs. 

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. hold the final two playoffs spots.

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.

Of course, there are 14 other drivers who have won this year and will look to add to their win total, including regular season champion Chase Elliott and Austin Cindric, who won this year’s Daytona 500. 

Cindric’s victory made it six consecutive years a Cup driver won at a superspeedway for their first career series win. 

But this season also had its share of unusual developments on and off the track. 

Who would have figured that where Kyle Busch — the only active driver with more than one Cup title — would race in 2023 would be uncertain in August?

Or in a season where wheels come off from time to time that Erik Jones would lose several laps at Kansas as his crew could not get a wheel off during a pit stop at Kansas. 

Or a season where there have been five first-time winners and all won before former Cup champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Truex.

Or Chris Buescher’s car catching fire early in the race at the Indianapolis road course and him staying in it as the fire is extinguished and then going on to finish in the top 10. 

Or Cody Ware having to avoid a flying tent on the Indianapolis road course. 

Or the finish that was but then wasn’t in the All-Star Race where Blaney thought he won and lowered his window net and then thought he might lose, as he struggled to put the net up and then winning again by holding the field off for the $1 million prize. 

Or whatever games Denny Hamlin was playing against Ross Chastain at Gateway after Chastain wrecked him. 

So, yes, go ahead and guess what might happen, but in reality, no one really knows what will take place.


Due to local programming, the Cup Series race on Saturday will air on WBAL 11.2 MeTV in Baltimore, WKCF in Orlando, KTVK in Phoenix and WMOR in Tampa. Check local listings in Lancaster/Harrisburg (Pa.), Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Viewers in all markets can live stream the race on Peacock, NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports app.

Daytona Cup starting lineup

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Larson will start on the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Daytona International Speedway after rain canceled qualifying Friday.

Larson will be joined on the front row by Chase Elliott, who has clinched the regular-season title.

Joey Logano starts third and is joined by Daniel Suarez in the second row. Christopher Bell starts fifth.

MORE: Daytona Cup starting lineup

MORE: Those with best shot to win way into playoffs at Daytona 

Saturday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) is the final race of the regular season. The playoff field will be set after the race. Fourteen of the 16 playoff spots have been secured. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the only two winless drivers in a playoff spot. Blaney leads Truex by 25 points.

Blaney starts 16th. Truex starts 13th.

Thirteen drivers outside a playoff spot could earn a playoff position by winning Saturday.

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. McDowell starts ninth, highest among this group.

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.

Aric Almirola signs multi-year agreement to remain at SHR

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aric Almirola has signed a multi-year agreement to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing after stating in January that he planned for to retire from full-time Cup racing after this season.

“It just feels right,” Almirola said Friday at Daytona International Speedway.

Sponsor Smithfield also has signed a multi-year agreement to remain with Stewart-Haas Racing. Next season will be the 12th consecutive season Smithfield has partnered with Almirola. Smithfield will serve as the anchor partner and have the largest allotment of races on the car since joining SHR with Almirola in 2018.

Almirola said the deal was finalized this week.

Almirola’s announcement Friday is not a surprise. The 38-year-old had hinted in July of a return to the series. 

“I’ve learned a lot this year and perhaps the biggest learning was to never say never,” Almirola said in a statement. “I came into this year ready to soak everything up, and I have. I already knew I had the coolest job in the world, but being with my family and being there for (wife) Janice and Alex and Abby was really important. My desire to compete and win never wavered, but I didn’t want it to come at the expense of family. We found a way to accommodate both and I’ve never been happier. 

“Smithfield is a big part of that. They’ve been a part of my life for 11 years and, really, my entire NASCAR Cup Series career. They’re family to me. And, of course, it’s always nice to be wanted. Smithfield wanted me to continue representing them. Stewart-Haas Racing wanted me to continue driving their racecars. Everything just aligned and it’s something we all embraced.

“The original decision to step away from full-time racing at the end of the season was a family one, and so is this decision. Janice, Alex and Abby are just as excited as I am to continue racing the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang.” 

Next season will mark Almirola’s 12th full-time season in Cup — and sixth at Stewart-Haas Racing. He has three career series wins. Almirola needs to win Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) to advance to the playoffs for fifth consecutive season.

“Aric has been a part of the Smithfield family for more than a decade and we’re very happy to have him back in the No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang, said Shane Smith, president and CEO, Smithfield Foods, in a statement:

“Just as Aric discovered new ways to enjoy this sport, Smithfield did too. I was at this year’s Daytona 500 with him and it was electric. NASCAR is exactly where we need to be. It’s where our customers are, and no one reaches them better than Aric Almirola. 

“He’s an incredibly talented racer and devoted family man who embodies Smithfield’s values. From day one, Aric has embraced our commitment to do good for our customers, employees and communities. This is a reinvestment in Aric, in Stewart- Haas Racing and in NASCAR.” 


Due to local programming, the Cup Series race on Saturday will air on WBAL 11.2 MeTV in Baltimore, WKCF in Orlando, KTVK in Phoenix and WMOR in Tampa. Check local listings in Lancaster/Harrisburg (Pa.), Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Viewers in all markets can live stream the race on Peacock, NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports app.

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)

Dr. Diandra: The best Next Gen superspeedway drivers

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The best superspeedway drivers understand the draft. Their spotters anticipate trouble and opportunity, and their crew chiefs provide cars that handle well enough to deal with both.

Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) will determine the last of the 16 drivers who will compete for the 2022 championship.

I examine how this race will differ from February’s Daytona 500. Using data from 2022 superspeedway races at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta, I identify which drivers have the best shot at that last playoff spot.

Summer in Daytona

Daytona has a different character in the summer. More grip produces higher speeds and a faster pace, as Alex Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” this week.

“When the pace is higher,” Ives said, “your ability to make passes gets lower because everybody starts to handle better. You’re not lifting as much, so getting those runs and just making passes is a little more difficult.”

A second factor crew chiefs must consider is the high probability of thunderstorms.

Rain has shortened the 400-mile summer race twice in the last 10 years. Aric Almirola and Justin Haley earned their first career wins at those races.

Rain or shine, Daytona hosts more first-time Cup Series career winners than any other track. Erik Jones (2018) and William Byron (2020) made their first trips to Victory Lane at summer Daytona races.

Rain could affect qualifying, but qualifying is much less important at superspeedways. Last summer’s race had an average of 55 passes per lap. With that much shuffling, there’s almost no correlation between starting position and finishing position.

The graph below shows the starting positions of the last 10 summer Daytona race winners. The colors identify where the winner started the race. Hatch marks indicate involvement in an accident or spin, and asterisks note years without qualifying.

A vertical bar chart showing where Daytona summer winners started the race

In the last 10 summer races:

  • The polesitter won only once: Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2015.
  • Five winners came from the top-10 starting positions.
  • One race winner started from P15.
  • The remaining three winners started outside the top 20.

While winning the pole demonstrates you have a fast car, sheer speed isn’t the key to winning at Daytona. Of the nine polesitters who didn’t win:

  • Four had race-ending accidents. Four more were involved in incidents that hampered their finishes.
  • Only Kevin Harvick, the 2020 polesitter, escaped involvement in accidents and spins. He finished 20th.
  • Not counting Earnhardt’s win, the best finish by a polesitter was Matt Kenseth’s third place, in 2012.
  • The other eight polesitters all finished outside the top five. Six of those eight finished P20 or worse.

With this being the final race of the regular season, expect drivers to take risks, especially toward the end of the race. Of the last 10 Daytona summer races, seven went into overtime and four ended under caution. The races that finished under green were decided by 0.159 of a second or less.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The Big One — a crash that involves a large fraction of the field — is virtually inevitable. In the last 10 summer Daytona races, from 16% to 50% of the field failed to finish the race. With 37 cars on the preliminary entry list this weekend, those percentages project between six and 20 cars in the garage before the race ends.

Only 12 cars failed to finish the Daytona 500. But drivers have gained a lot more experience with the Next Gen car since then. Twenty-five races into the season, they understand better what the car can and can’t do. Given the stakes, expect the DNF numbers to skew toward the high side.

Strong superspeedways finishers

The Next Gen car has made such a difference for some drivers their career stats may be irrelevant. The graph below shows changes in average finishes at superspeedways from 2021 to 2022.

A bar chart comparing drivers' 2022 superspeedway average finish with their average finish in 2021

Red bars indicate the driver’s performance is worse this year than last. Blue bars show improvement. I’ve arranged the drivers in order of amount of change from worst on the left to best on the right.

Among drivers whose finish positions are worse this year than last:

  • Austin Dillon has the largest decline in performance, with a net change of 14.5 positions. He had DNFs at both Atlanta races due to accidents.
  • Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin finished an average of 13 positions worse than 2021.
  • Harvick’s average finish was worse by 10.5 positions.

Among drivers performing better on superspeedways this year than last:

  • Martin Truex Jr.’s average finishing position improved by 15 positions: from 24.25 to 9.25.
  • Bowman improved by 10.75 positions, Daniel Suárez by 10.5, and Almirola by 10.25 positions.

The best superspeedway drivers in 2022

Fifteen winless drivers within the top 30 in points are eligible for the last championship slot. If none of them wins this weekend, the last playoff spot comes down to a points battle between Truex and Ryan Blaney.

Chase Elliott has the best superspeedway average finish this year at 6.0, which includes his win at Atlanta in July.

The two drivers with the next best average finish on superspeedways are Truex and Blaney at 9.25.

Truex has never won at a superspeedway. According to Racing Insights, his 69 superspeedway races without a win are the most among active drivers.

Although Truex has finished outside the top 10 in 10 of his last 12 Daytona starts, he won two stages in this year’s Daytona 500. Damage to his right front fender after being caught up in Tyler Reddick’s spin relegated him to a 13th-place finish. Truex also led laps at three of this year’s four superspeedway races.

Truex’s challenge is that there will be only six Toyotas on track. He has a lower probability of finding drafting partners than Ford or Chevy drivers.

Blaney won this race last year — and Ford drivers have won the last three Daytona races. Blaney won one stage at Atlanta and led laps at all four superspeedway races in 2022.

Among the other winless drivers this season, Bubba Wallace has the next best average finish on superspeedways: 11.5. He finished second at the Daytona 500. His frustration at finishing second at Michigan shows how much he wants to win.

Almirola, Jones and Michael McDowell round out the winless drivers with superspeedway average finishes better than 14.

Every driver already in the playoffs wants to win this race. If they can’t win themselves, it’s an advantage for them to have a weaker driver in the playoffs than either Blaney or Truex.

The strategy of self-interest could make for unlikely alliances.  Watch for those alliances to form and dissolve Saturday night.