Bubba Wallace clinging to final playoff spot as NASCAR shifts to unpredictable Daytona

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Bubba Wallace walks to his car during qualifications for a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Bubba Wallace will be in a precarious position at Daytona International Speedway this weekend, and it has nothing to do with three-wide racing at 200 mph.

Wallace holds the 16th and final spot in NASCAR’s Cup Series playoff standings. It’s a tenuous grip at best.

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More than a dozen others will be trying to pry that postseason berth from Wallace when the green flag drops in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on Saturday night. Wallace can’t get greedy and won't have the luxury of staying out of the fray.

“Still stressful as hell,” Wallace quipped following a 12th-place finish at Watkins Glen on Sunday.

Winning at Daytona would be the easiest path for Wallace to make the playoffs for the first time. And he should feel confident considering he has four top-five finishes in 12 Cup races at the famed superspeedway.

But Daytona is one of NASCAR’s most unpredictable tracks, a high-banked, high-heartrate venue at which Justin Haley, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have more wins than former series champions Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

“Daytona is a race where you just kind of budget for someone new winning, and if they don’t, then you’re ahead of budget,” said three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who is a co-owner of Wallace’s No. 23 Toyota at 23XI Racing. “I think you still have to race smart, and if you get unlucky, then you get unlucky.”

Fifteen drivers already have clinched playoff spots: Truex, Hamlin, William Byron, Christopher Bell, Larson, Kevin Harvick, Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell and Stenhouse. Even though none of them needs a win, all are vying for all-important bonus points heading into the opening round of the postseason.

If Wallace doesn’t find himself in victory lane at Daytona, he’d love to see one of those already-locked-in guys win the regular-season finale. That would give Wallace the best chance of securing the final playoff spot based on points.

He has a 32-point lead over Ty Gibbs of Joe Gibbs Racing. Daniel Suárez of Trackhouse Racing also is within striking distance of clinching the last spot via points.

Still, roughly 20 others — with little, if anything, to lose — will be trying to sneak in at Daytona. The list includes 2020 series champion and fan favorite Elliott, who has made the playoffs each of the last seven years, as well as former Daytona winners Haley, Jones, Austin Dillon, Austin Cindric and Aric Almirola.

It’s exactly the scenario NASCAR wanted when it tweaked the schedule and put the regular-season finale at Daytona in late August. Anyone can win and often does.

In the last four Cup races at Daytona, Riley Herbst, Landon Cassill, Cody Ware, B.J. McLeod, David Ragan, Ryan Preece, Haley and Josh Bilicki have enjoyed top-10 finishes. It’s not exactly a who’s who in the series.

But it’s the kind of recent results that should give everyone hope, including Wallace. He seemed to find extra confidence at the Glen with one of his best road-course finishes.

“I’m proud of myself. That’s the first time I’ve felt proud of myself after a road-course race,” Wallace said. “I just executed and didn’t lose focus, maybe one time, and that’s a difference-maker. You’ve got to stay on it, especially at these places.

“We wanted to maintain our gap (over 17th) and not lose too many, but we gained. Hats off to everybody.”

Wallace chatted with six-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon “about the mental piece” before the race, welcoming tips that could carry into Daytona.

“It’s hard when you climb in at a road-course race and tell yourself that you’re going to crash and you’re going to suck,” Wallace said. “He basically told me to shut the hell up and I’m here for a reason and to trust in myself and believe in myself."

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