One NASCAR playoff spot, 17 drivers in the mix: Ranking their hopes at Daytona

Defining the NASCAR playoff “bubble drivers” is an odd thing. Sure, you’ve got Bubba Wallace with a 32-point lead over Ty Gibbs (and Daniel Suárez another 11 points back from Gibbs) for the 16th and final spot in the playoff field. Those fit the traditional description of a competitor on the playoff bubble, since they’re hovering around the cutline heading into the final regular-season race.

On the other hand, isn’t every non-playoff driver on the bubble heading into Daytona? With no points requirement to make the playoffs, the win-and-in opportunity Saturday night at Daytona can instantly redeem an entire season. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine, either; this is a track that has not only seen eight different drivers win the last eight races, but the driver who leads the most laps in a Daytona race only has one win since 2017.

No, not everyone is capable of winning at Daytona. But under the right circumstances, the vast majority of the field certainly can. February’s Daytona 500 saw more than half of the drivers lead at least one lap (among 52 lead changes, the most since the short-lived “tandem” racing that ended after 2011).

So who are the most likely drivers to earn that last spot in the playoffs after the checkered flag flies on the regular season? We’ve sorted all 17 eligible drivers into tiers below.

Highly Achievable

Bubba Wallace

Scenario: Can clinch with 24 points scored if there’s no new winner from below him in the standings.

Daytona career (12 starts): No wins, four top-fives, four top-10s, 28 laps led, 13.0 average finish.

Outlook: Wallace enters Daytona with a 32-point lead for the final playoff spot, so he should be OK if there’s not a new winner and he doesn’t crash. Of course, both of those are big ifs — but Wallace is in the best position of anyone.

Ty Gibbs

ScenarioCan pass Wallace in points for the final spot if there’s no new winner or he can win the race.

Daytona career (two starts): No wins, no top-fives, no top-10s, no laps led, 19.0 average finish.

Outlook: Though it might seem imposing to enter Daytona with such a points deficit, all it would take is a Wallace wreck for Gibbs to be very much in the picture. As long as Gibbs makes it to Stage 3 and prevents Wallace from gaining too many stage points on him, he’s going to have a chance at racing his way into the playoffs without winning the race. Could he actually win it, though? That seems like a tall task for a rookie.

Ty Gibbs is one of two drivers with a shot to overtake Bubba Wallace for the final spot even without a victory at Daytona. (Jonathan Bachman / Getty Images)

No Surprise Here

Aric Almirola

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (23 starts): One win, three top-fives, four top-10s, 45 laps led, 20.2 average finish.

Outlook: Don’t sleep on Almirola. In what may be his final Daytona appearance as a full-time driver, Almirola is absolutely capable of winning his way into the playoffs on Saturday night. He’s led double-digit laps in the last five superspeedway-style races and is part of the Ford brigade that always works well together at Daytona. Almirola may only have three career wins, but two of them have come on superspeedways.

Chase Elliott

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (15 starts): No wins, two top-fives, four top-10s, 157 laps led, 22.0 average finish.

Outlook: Though Elliott himself compared this situation to “going to Vegas and having to hit the nearest slot machine for the jackpot,” he’s going to have every opportunity to race his way into the playoffs with a last-gasp win. Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson will likely try to work with Elliott, though their attention may be split by helping Alex Bowman as well. But Elliott will have a fast car, a good alliance and the skills to pull this off.

Austin Dillon

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (20 starts): Two wins, four top-fives, nine top-10s, 85 laps led, 15.6 average finish.

Outlook: If you doubt Dillon in this situation, just look at last year. With the help of then-teammate Tyler Reddick (after a rain-induced crash which took out a large portion of the field), Dillon won Daytona to snag the final playoff spot. He knows what he’s doing at superspeedway, and no one would be shocked to see him do it again.

Aric Almirola

With two of his three career wins on superspeedways, Aric Almirola is among the best bets to get a last-ditch, playoff-clinching win. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

Entirely Possible

Austin Cindric

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (four starts): One win, two top-fives, two top-10s, 36 laps led, 10.5 average finish.

Outlook: The 2022 Daytona 500 winner will have mega support from his Team Penske teammates and be able to draft with the powerful Ford contingent. He’s not one of the favorites to win, but it also wouldn’t be a stretch at all to imagine him standing in victory lane.

Alex Bowman

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (14 starts): No wins, one top-five, four top-10s, 42 laps led, 16.8 average finish.

Outlook: This year’s Daytona 500 polesitter should have support from his Hendrick teammates, even though they’ll likely also be drafting with Elliott. But if Elliott isn’t in contention for whatever reason at the end and Bowman has the full focus of his group? There’s a very realistic pathway to the victory if the race shakes out the right way.

Daniel Suárez

Scenario: Can make it on points if Wallace has trouble and there’s no new winner or he can win the race.

Daytona career (12 starts): No wins, no top-fives, one top-10, 35 laps led, 26.8 average finish.

Outlook: People tend to forget it was Suárez who was leading one of the lanes with 23 laps to go last summer when he and the rest of the field hit the sudden Florida rain shower and were wiped out. He has several factors working in his favor on Saturday: First, Trackhouse Racing teammate Ross Chastain will be fully dedicated to pushing Suárez into the playoffs. Second, there’s a chance Gibbs and Wallace could wreck together and open up a longshot pathway to the last spot via points. Third, Suárez is aggressive and fearless and could put himself in the perfect position by the end of the race.

Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suárez has several factors working in his favor Saturday, including the chance to get in on points even without a win. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

Wow, They Really Did It

Justin Haley

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (six starts): One win, one top-five, two top-10s, nine laps led, 17.2 average finish.

Outlook: This section is reserved for drivers who we know could win and are quite capable of doing so, but it would still be a surprise if they pulled it off. Haley fits that bill, because while he’s a fantastic superspeedway racer with a great sense for that style of racing, he’s not going to have much help. His teammate AJ Allmendinger is also in a must-win situation and the other Chevrolet drivers may be more focused on staying loyal to someone like Elliott than Haley (whose Kaulig Racing team isn’t a “key partner” for Chevy). But if Haley is around at the end, he could certainly contend for the win.

Corey LaJoie

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (13 starts): No wins, no top-fives, three top-10s, eight laps led, 18.8 average finish.

Outlook: There are a lot of similarities between LaJoie and Haley. Would it shock anyone to see LaJoie win on a superspeedway, based on his past performances? No. And yet it would still rank as a giant upset because LaJoie isn’t going to have a ton of help. Like Haley, he certainly could win; but will he actually get it done?

Chase Briscoe

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (five starts): No wins, one top-five, one top-10, five laps led, 21.8 average finish.

Outlook: Briscoe is in a more favorable situation than LaJoie and Haley because he’s going to be drafting with a large, competitive group of Fords. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver needs those Fords to stick together, keep him toward the front and then make sure he has track position in the final laps. If that happens, he could end up in victory lane.

Corey LaJoie

With three top-10s in 13 Daytona starts, Corey LaJoie has a shot to be in the mix at the end. (Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

If Everything Goes Right

Ryan Preece

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (seven starts): No wins, one top-five, three top-10s, five laps led, 21.7 average finish.

Outlook: In 2021, while driving for JTG Daugherty Racing, Preece finished sixth and fourth in his two Daytona starts. Though he’s more known for being a short-track specialist, Preece has occasionally found himself in the top 10 at superspeedways (he also has two top-10s at Talladega). Like Briscoe, Preece will have the benefit of drafting with his SHR teammates and the other Fords. That said, getting out in front of all of them will mean everything has to go exactly right.

Todd Gilliland

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (three starts): No wins, no top-fives, no top-10s, no laps led, 27.7 average finish.

Outlook: Gilliland has two top-10s at Talladega, so it’s not like he doesn’t know what he’s doing at superspeedways. If the Front Row Motorsports cars can hang with the Fords and Gilliland’s teammate, Michael McDowell, commits to pushing him, it’s possible everything could line up ideally for Gilliland to snatch a shocking playoff berth.

AJ Allmendinger

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (20 starts): No wins, three top-fives, seven top-10s, 22 laps led, 19.7 average finish.

Outlook: In some ways, it’s difficult to see a pathway for Allmendinger winning this race. Even though the Kaulig cars historically have good teamwork, they might not get much help outside their own group. That said, just look at Allmendinger’s stats at Daytona: Though there was a five-year gap in this streak, the veteran driver has recorded five straight top-10s there. He’s only crashed out of Daytona races twice in his 20 starts — and not since 2014. So while a victory would take a lot of circumstances falling his way, it’s also not impossible.

Erik Jones

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (13 starts): One win, two top-fives, three top-10s, 61 laps led, 22.8 average finish.

Outlook: Jones has won this race before (remember, “How ’bout that race, boys and girls?”). But doing it again will be a challenge. His Legacy Motorsports teammate for this race is Josh Berry, making just his 12th Cup Series start and first at Daytona. Jones is capable, but he’ll need so many things to fall his way to have a true chance.

AJ Allmendinger

Known for his road-course prowess, AJ Allmendinger has been solid at Daytona too, giving some hope for that needed win. (Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

Stunning Jaw-Droppers

Harrison Burton

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (three starts): No wins, no top-fives, no top-10s, 12 laps led, 28.0 average finish.

Outlook: At the Talladega race this spring, Burton was leading the lower lane when he was spun by Noah Gragson. Though that was a promising moment, that’s mostly it for Burton’s Cup Series highlights at the big superspeedways, where he has crashed out in five of his six career starts and is still inexperienced. Burton should have a chance to run with the Team Penske cars, but pulling off his first career Cup win to snatch an unlikely playoff berth seems like a heck of a longshot.

Ty Dillon

Scenario: Must win.

Daytona career (13 starts): No wins, one top-five, three top-10s, 11 laps led, 21.2 average finish.

Outlook: Dillon is currently suffering through an absolutely putrid season which has seen just 10 lead-lap finishes in 25 starts and a season average finish of 28.4 (both numbers rank last among full-time Cup drivers). Since May, Dillon has only finished better than 20th one time (though that was a 19th-place result at the Atlanta superspeedway-style race). If Dillon were somehow able to pull off a Daytona victory and make the playoffs, it would immediately place him among the all-time most mind-blowing NASCAR upsets — if not at the top.



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(Top photo of Chase Elliott: Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

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