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NASCAR Cup Daytona II

NASCAR 2023 regular season finale preview: Who can claim the final playoff spot?

Heading into the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale at Daytona, 15 drivers are locked into a playoff spot and 17 others are vying for the final one.

Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, McDonald's Toyota Camry

Bubba Wallace, who has never before made the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, sits 32 points ahead of his nearest competition in the final post-season spot currently.

The pressure is high for the 23XI Racing driver, who admitted that Daytona will be "stressful as hell."

A strong run on Saturday would solidify his points cushion, but none of that matters if one of the 16 full-time drivers below him in the standings manages to win the race.

Austin Dillon did just that last year. In the 2020 regular season finale, William Byron secured his place in the post-season with his first career win at Daytona as well.

Now, if there were to be a repeat winner, then Wallace only need worry about scoring enough points to keep Ty Gibbs (-32) and Daniel Suarez (-43) at bay.

Even with zero stage points, if Wallace finishes 13th or higher, he will be safe as long as there are no new winners.

Wallace has proven to be a capable superspeedway racer himself, twice finishing second in the Daytona 500 and earning his maiden Cup win at Talladega Superspeedway in 2021.

Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, DoorDash Toyota Camry

Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing, DoorDash Toyota Camry

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

As mentioned, Gibbs and Suarez are the only drivers who could possibly point their way into the playoffs.

They would need to gain a lot of ground on Wallace, and hope no one below them in points wins the race.

That starts with the stages. Expect both of these drivers to aggressively pursue stage points, with 20 maximum points available should a driver win both Stage 1 and Stage 2.

But ultimately, it will take a lot for them to bridge that gap on points alone. Their best bet is the same as everyone else outside the playoffs: Just go for the win. 

Daniel Suarez, Trackhouse Racing, Trackhouse Motorplex Chevrolet Camaro

Daniel Suarez, Trackhouse Racing, Trackhouse Motorplex Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Win the race at all costs is all that will help the remaining 14 runners. Points don't matter. Two stage wins and a runner-up finish gains them nothing. They absolutely have to win.

Among this group is 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, who has never missed the playoffs since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 2016.

Elliott has shown speed nearly every week, but is deep in the points after missing six races due to a leg injury and a seventh after being suspended for intentionally wrecking Denny Hamlin at the Coke 600.

He has never won a points race at Daytona, but his 157 laps led at the 2.5-mile superspeedway is more than any other driver facing a must-win situation.

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

Looking at this particular group of drivers, there are five former Daytona Cup winners among them: Austin Dillon (2018 D500, 2022); Austin Cindric (2021 D500); Justin Haley (2019); Erik Jones (2018); Aric Almirola (2014).

Other drivers facing a must-win situation are Alex Bowman, A.J. Allmendinger, Ryan Preece, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie, Harrison Burton, Chase Briscoe, Ty Dillon.

Stewart-Haas Racing has three of its four drivers in this uncomfortable position while Hendrick Motorsports, Spire Motorsports, and Kaulig Racing each have two. 

Expect to see a lot of interesting dynamics throughout this race between manufacturer loyalties and drivers already locked in spending the night trying to help their team-mates.

Other battles to watch

The points battle doesn't just centre around the 16th and final spot in the playoffs either. Martin Truex Jr. leads Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Hamlin by 39 points in the fight for the regular season title.

Fifteen playoff bonus points are awarded to the championship leader at the end of this race.

Some bonus points are also on offer for those who end the regular season inside the top 10. This includes an incredibly close battle between sixth and 12th. Just 14 points separate this group of drivers.

Adding a bit of a wrinkle to all this is the fact that the owners' standings don't exactly mirror the drivers' standings.

Hamlin was docked 25 points earlier this year after intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain at Phoenix, but his car was not penalised. That means that the #11 JGR Toyota is just 14 points behind Truex's #19 JGR Toyota in that regular season title fight.

Martin Truex Jr, Joe Gibbs Racing, Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota Camry

Martin Truex Jr, Joe Gibbs Racing, Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota Camry

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

And the battle for 16th is different as well. The #9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, thanks to the efforts of Josh Berry, Jordan Taylor, and LaJoie while Elliott was sidelined, actually holds the 16th and final playoff spot.

Wallace's #23 23XI Racing Toyota is currently below the cut-line and 30 points behind the #9, which could complicate Wallace's strategy as looks to protect his position in the driver's points while also securing a place in the owner's playoffs.

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