Final spot in NASCAR Cup Series playoffs comes down to 17 drivers at Daytona

AP photo by Paul Sancya / NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace walks to his car for a Cup Series qualifying session on Aug. 5 at Michigan International Speedway. Heading into Saturday night's regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway, Wallace has the best position in the points standings among the 17 drivers battling for the final spot in the 16-man playoff field.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There's sure to be high drama on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.

Maybe even more than usual.

In a 400-mile race on the 2.5-mile superspeedway that will also be the regular-season finale for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series schedule, 17 drivers — including Bubba Wallace, 2022 Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric and fan favorite Chase Elliott — will vie for the final spot in the 16-man field for the playoffs.

There's no prohibitive favorite to fill that vacancy, though there are advantages for some drivers. And given the unpredictable nature of three-wide pack racing at nearly 200 mph, there's no telling who will end up in victory lane. In three previous races with Daytona hosting the regular-season finale, William Byron (2020) and Austin Dillon (2022) won to eke out postseason spots.

"It's definitely a nailbiter for the guys that are on that bubble, but it's also a big opportunity for guys that are on the outside looking in," said 2017 Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., who missed the playoffs by three points last year at Daytona. "They have a chance in one of the biggest wild-card races of the year to shake things up and get into the playoffs, one last shot."

Wallace has a tenuous hold on the 16th and final playoff spot, carrying a 32-point advantage over Ty Gibbs into the weekend. Daniel Suárez is 43 points behind Wallace. Those three Toyota drivers are the only ones who can get in on points.

"You don't get to experience moments like this all the time," Suárez said. "And when you do experience these moments, that's really when you get to show what you're built of."

Fourteen others can knock out the Toyota trio by winning. No one would be surprised to see it happen, because the all or nothing group includes 2020 Cup Series champion Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman, two guys who usually have speed at superspeedways, as well as former Daytona winners Cindric, Dillon, Aric Almirola, Justin Haley and Erik Jones.

"Superspeedway racing is a high-speed chess match, and you have to make the right moves early to be there in the end," said Almirola, who won the 2014 summer race at Daytona. "I think we have a great opportunity this weekend to catapult our way into the playoffs."

Plenty of his competitors feel the same, and they will have tough choices to make when the green flags drops. They can ride in the back in hopes of avoiding the chaos that typically comes with racing at Daytona, or try to race to the front and potentially get ahead of the big one — the wreck that sometimes knocks out a significant amount of the field.

Either way, it's a calculated risk and sure to be costly for someone.

"I think I would be devastated if we didn't make the playoffs," said Wallace, who is in his second year at 23XI Racing and second full season of Cup Series competition but has yet to gain postseason eligibility.

"I hate that we haven't had a win this year to lock ourselves in yet," added Wallace, whose four top-five finishes this year included three straight in May. "... We're still missing the fourth quarter, the final stage of the race, like getting that dialed in. Nothing's guaranteed. You've got to go out and fight for it. I continue to say that, so we're going to have to put it all on the line this weekend and get ourselves locked in."

The 10-race schedule for the playoffs will culminate with the Nov. 5 finale at Phoenix Raceway, where only four drivers will still be eligible for the championship. The postseason will begin on Sept. 3 with a NASCAR crown jewel race, the Southern 500 at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway.

The 15 drivers locked into the field are Byron, Truex, Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Tyler Reddick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Truex is first in the standings with 861 points, and the only driver with a chance to stop him from securing the regular-season title is Hamlin (822 points), who is one of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. However, Byron has a series-leading five victories this year and likely will enter the postseason as the playoff points leader.

While points could be enough for Gibbs, Suárez or Wallace to advance, there are those 14 others who could qualify with a win: Almirola, Bowman, Cindric, Elliott, Haley, Jones, AJ Allmendinger, Chase Briscoe, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece and both Dillon brothers — Austin and Ty. In that group, Elliott has the best odds of winning, having been listed as an 11-1 shot by FanDuel Sportsbook, which has Blaney and Logano as the co-favorites at 10-1.

Hendrick Motorsports has two drivers locked in with Byron and 2021 Cup Series champ Larson, and all four drivers for the dominant organization might already be in had it not been for injuries earlier in the season to Bowman and Elliott. Bowman missed three races after hurting his back during a rollover in a sprint car race, and Elliott was sidelined for six races after breaking his left leg while snowboarding.

"It just puts a little bit more pressure because of what is at stake," said four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, the vice chairman at Hendrick.

And that added pressure comes at Daytona. Wallace, whose three runner-up finishes in Cup Series races at the track include two in the Daytona 500, hopes to be breathing easy late Saturday night.

"No one is safe until the race is over with," Wallace said, "and we're hoping we can do everything right."