In so many ways, it’s especially fitting that the NASCAR Cup Series holds its perpetually dramatic regular season finale to set the 16-driver Playoff field at the sport’s most legendary track, Daytona International Speedway.
The sport’s most famous venue not only throws the green flag on every season with the DAYTONA 500 but in modern times now symbolizes all the excitement of the regular season finale too; formalizing which drivers will have a shot at the NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy in a 10-race run starting the following week.
The Coke Zero Sugar 400 is set for Saturday night under the lights and on primetime network television (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Only a single Playoff position still remains to be settled and Daytona International Speedway absolutely provides all the allure expected of such a big moment in each season.
The summertime Daytona race – held in July from 1959-2019, before moving to the August regular season finale position in 2020 – has always been a highlight on the schedule. Whereas the DAYTONA 500 represents a starting point for the season – clean slates, big optimism and title hopes – the summer race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway has produced its own kind of drama and is every bit as significant in establishing momentum in the closing weeks of the season.
That’s evident by the list of winners – a slightly different and interesting variation on the DAYTONA 500 - from NASCAR Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts claiming the first July race victory in 1959 to Austin Dillon hoisting the trophy last August leapfrogging the season standings and earning a coveted position in the Playoffs.
Richard Petty’s all-time best seven victories are synonymous with the history of the DAYTONA 500, but it’s actually the late David Pearson who has hoisted the most summer trophies (five) at the track.
Fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Tony Stewart are next on the wins list with four each. Another quartet of Hall of Famers, Petty, Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon each have won Daytona’s summer race three times.
The legendary A.J. Foyt and three other NASCAR Hall of Famers, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the only other multi-time winners with a pair of trophies each.
There hasn’t been a repeat winner in this event since 2005-06 when Stewart doubled-up. You have to go all the way back to the mid-1970s to find someone before that to win back-to-back summer races at Daytona; Pearson’s unmatched three-peat from 1972-'74.
So often this 400-miler has featured dramatic races with first-time winners from Jimmy Spencer in 1994 and John Andretti in 1997 to David Ragan in 2011 and Aric Almirola in 2014.
In just the last five years alone, the Coke Zero 400 has featured three career first-time NASCAR Cup Series winners in Erik Jones (2018), Justin Haley (2019) and William Byron (2020).
And no active driver has won this race multiple times. It’s exactly the kind of intrigue that compels the race fans and the drivers.
“Daytona is a wide-open crapshoot," sums up Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr., who holds a 39-point advantage over his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin for the Regular Season Championship and its 15-point Playoff bonus. Truex has never won a race at a superspeedway such as Daytona and the 2.66-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in the NASCAR Cup Series. Hamlin is a three-time Daytona 500 winner but has never won the summer race at the track.
“Everyone holds it wide open," Truex said. “You get down to the end of the race and we’ve seen the crashes over and over on the green-white-checkereds. Everyone just holds it wide open and, if they have any momentum at all, they just try to drive through the guy in front of them and it spins him out and crashes him.
“It’s really just a wild card, it’s kind of crazy. I wouldn’t say I’m not uncomfortable there, but it kind of stinks to get down to the end, if you make it that far, to just get crashed at the end. I’m hoping we can have some better luck this weekend with our Ducks Unlimited Bass Pro Shops Camry.”
Daytona International Speedway is that rare venue where every single driver from every single team feels he has a chance at victory. And does.
“What makes speedway racing much more challenging than really, any other handling racetrack, is that it’s based on the decisions and mindset of yourself and your competitors," said Team Penske’s Austin Cindric, who scored his only career NASCAR Cup Series victory in the 2022 Daytona 500.
“Those types of things change when you’re pack racing. Those are also things you can’t really prepare for or predict. It’s a very social style of racing. It’s never an opportunity you want to put yourself into, to where you are relying on others. This is an environment that’s much more in our control. It is what it is for everybody else. I’ve had success. We’ve had speed at these styles of racetracks. I’m not afraid to go there and put my name in the hat and say that I can win because I know I can.”
It’s exactly that kind of high-stakes racing that has made this Daytona International Speedway summer race one of the most highly-anticipated events on the schedule – creating a new-era history to match its legendary status at one of the sport’s most celebrated tracks.
And fans and drivers – from the legends to the modern-day best - can agree on that.