NASCAR's odd regular season to end at Daytona

By Pete Pistone  () 

NASCAR has experienced a number of firsts during this coronavirus-impacted season.

Doubleheader weekends, midweek races and no practice or qualifying are just a few of the byproducts implemented by the sanctioning body since the sport returned in mid-May.

Another first will take place Saturday night when the Cup Series regular season concludes with

the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

However, unlike the other modifications put into play because of COVID-19, ending the

regular-season schedule at Daytona was by design. The annual July 4 stop at “The World Center of Racing” was moved back about a month and a half so the final 16-driver playoff field could be determined on the iconic 2.5-mile superspeedway.

The result sets up a fascinating scenario of drivers below the cut line trying to race their way

into the postseason through the point standings or with an automatic berth thanks to a win. Juxtapose that group with those already locked into the playoffs who don’t care about points and are simply trying to get to Victory Lane, and Saturday night has the ingredients to be one of the year’s wildest races.

The nature of racing at Daytona and the reliance on drafting while working with others in the

tight packs typical of superspeedway racing add to that drama. But while luck plays a role in success at Daytona, some drivers also use a distinct skill set to give them an advantage. Buckle up, because there’s a good chance Saturday night’s race will be a wild ride.

Here’s a look at the favorites for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona:

DENNY HAMLIN

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Hamlin is one of the top drivers in 2020 and comes into the weekend second in wins with five after taking one of last week’s Dover races. He’s also very good at Daytona and has won the season-opening Daytona 500 three times with victories in 2016, 2019 and last February.

JOEY LOGANO

His recent finishes don’t depict the whole story of how well Logano runs at Daytona and its sister track in Talladega. The Team Penske driver is usually near the front of the field, but his

sometimes-aggressive nature has recently caused Logano to get swept up in late-race accidents. He will be a player, and look for him to work with his Penske teammates as well as the rest of the Ford stable in the draft.

RYAN BLANEY

He’s another Penske driver with a penchant for racing well in the draft who will have the benefit of teammates to help his cause. Blaney was second in this year’s Daytona 500 coming up just short of edging Hamlin for the win in the race’s wild finish.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

It would be a storybook finish for sure if Johnson could pull off a win and clinch a playoff berth at the same time in his final full-time season. Before exiting February’s Daytona 500 in a crash, Johnson had one of the better cars in the race.

 

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