A Closer Look at Daytona International Speedway
What has been a weird regular season for NASCAR comes to a close this weekend. After a two-plus month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the circuit returned to action in mid-May at Darlington. NASCAR had run only four races prior to the pause and has ripped through 21 different races since that point as they have done an effective job of social distancing and doing their best to limit potential exposure. Jimmie Johnson was the lone driver on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit to test positive for COVID-19 since the restart but he missed only one race. Now, we have reached race 26, the final race of the regular season and it comes from Daytona with the Coke Zero Sugar 400.
Today, we take a look at some of history of the track itself, along with the relative success (or lack thereof) the current drivers have had at the track and inevitably, do our best to get you up to speed before we begin talking about our top prop bets for the race in the coming days. Daytona expects to have 20 percent capacity for the race, which, given their seating capacity of 101,000 people, means that just over 20,000 fans could be in attendance for this contest.
This weekend normally would have been a race at Watkins Glen up in New York but thanks to the whole schedule being reconfigured due to COVID-19, we end up here with plenty at stake. Most people are used to Daytona for the inaugural race of each NASCAR season, the Daytona 500, in January, but this is the secondary race for the track when it comes to the Cup Series.
The 2.5-mile banked tri-oval has hosted NASCAR races dating back to 1959. After Lee Welborn won the Daytona 500 qualifier on February 20, 1959, it was Lee Petty taking the checkered flag in the very first Daytona 500 two days later. He beat Johnny Beauchamp by just two feet: they were the only two drivers on the lead lap in the race. The track is 40 feet wide and is banked at 18 degrees at the start/finish line with the turns banked at 31 degrees, making things a steep challenge around the curves. Meanwhile, the back straightaway has a minimal two-degree bank in order to help with drainage if rain is an issue. The front stretch is 3,800 feet long while the back straightaway spans 3,000 feet. Daytona, along with Talladega, are the two tracks where restrictor plate racing takes place in an effort to limit some of the high speeds.
When it comes to experience on the track, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are the leading veterans as each has run 38 races on the track. Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman each have logged 37 starts at the track while Matt Kenseth rounds out the top five with 36 races. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin each have three wins here while Kenseth and Harvick both have a pair of victories. Eleven other active drivers, including Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski plus Kyle and Kurt Busch, have one victory here in their career. On the flip side, Martin Truex Jr., who starts second in this race, leads active drivers with 30 starts without a win here in his career.
Among active drivers, Kurt Busch leads the way with 13 top-five finishes at the track in his career. Johnson is next in line with 12, while Harvick (10), Hamlin (nine) and Kyle Busch (eight) round out the top five in that category. J.J. Yeley leads active drivers with 14 runs here without finishing in the top five. Kurt Busch has 18 top-10 runs at Daytona to lead active drivers with Johnson (16), Harvick (15), Kenseth (14) and Clint Bowyer (13) closing out the top five in that category. Chase Elliott leads the active driver category with three pole positions while Johnson is the only other driver with more than one as he has a pair. While Elliott has those three pole positions, he’s never finished better than 14th at Daytona in his career with five finishes of 32nd or worse.
The playoffs are at stake here as only 16 drivers make the playoff field. Ten of the drivers have been locked in via victories this season. That puts Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer in the playoffs. Without their victories, Dillon and Custer would be on the outside looking in heading into this race as they are 18th and 19th, respectively, in the standings. If a racer that has yet to record a win were to take the checkered flag, they would steal a spot from one of the winless drivers.
Entering this race, four of the final six spots, that are centered around non-winners, are held by Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer. That quartet is pretty well locked in, leaving a battle for the final couple of spots. As it stands, if the season were to end before the race, Matt DiBenedetto and William Byron are on the bubble as they would hold the final two spots in the field. DiBenedetto is five points ahead of Byron, while Byron is only four points ahead of Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot in the field. Erik Jones (50 points back) and Tyler Reddick (69 points behind) need a win in order to make the field as there simply isn’t enough points available for them to leapfrog into the playoffs.
Harvick starts from the pole in this one with Truex Jr. starting on the outside of row 1 for the race. The green flag is expected to be dropped at 7:30 pm ET with television coverage coming to you from NBC. Justin Haley is the defending champion in the race, holding the lead for just one lap before the race was halted by rain last year on July 17, 2019. For what it’s worth, Haley won the Xfinity Series race on Friday night here as well.