DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There’s already a lot of talk about the Oct. 23 restrictor plate race at Talladega Superspeedway and how it could shake up NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
But first, there’s the small matter of actually locking into the 16-driver field for the Chase. And even though NASCAR’s 10-race elimination style playoff doesn’t start until September, Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway may ultimately have an impact on the Chase grid.
With frequent multi-car crashes, the plate races often produce big swings in the point standings. Daytona was no exception; several drivers who were already in a precarious position in terms of the Chase got swept into a 22-car “big one” on Lap 90 of 160.
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Jamie McMurray triggered the massive pile-up, and he also took one of the biggest hits in terms of the Chase. McMurray entered the Daytona weekend on the bubble among drivers who haven’t scored a race win in 2016, and the 34th-place finish Saturday knocked him out of the top 16 if the Chase started today.
Conversely, Tony Stewart solidified his position in the Chase despite crashing with 11 laps remaining to be classified 26th. That still put Stewart nine places ahead of Brian Scott and helped him move ahead of Scott into 30th place in the point standings, which is a requirement for him to be Chase eligible, making him one of the evening’s big winners.
Because the Chase field is determined first by race winners, one spectacular Saturday night or Sunday afternoon could land a surprise driver in the field. With Stewart making it into the top 30, there are now 11 race winners this year all in the top 30, currently leaving five positions open through points.
“Tony winning last week takes up another spot, so it makes us have to work a little bit harder,” said Kyle Larson, who helped his cause with a sixth-place finish in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. “It’s going to be tough making the Chase if we don’t get a win, so I’m happy about the points we earned tonight.”
Here’s a look at how several drivers vying for a place in the Chase fared at Daytona:
Winner: Austin Dillon — What a difference a year makes for the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Dillon ended the rain-delayed 2015 Coke Zero 400 with a mangled race car after being launched into the fence on the final lap in an incident that left five spectators injured. This year, despite being among the 22 drivers involved in the big wreck on Lap 90 of 160, Dillon brought his car home in one piece in seventh place. After being two points to the good for a Chase place before the race, Dillon now has a 25-point cushion.
“It was a solid night for us,” Dillon said. “Made a lot of ground from 18th to seventh and wish we could have got a bit more, but I’m proud of our day. These are wild and crazy races, and it’s a lot better to come home seventh on all four wheels than upside down.”
Winner: Ryan Blaney — Rookie Blaney came into Daytona two spots out of making the Chase by points, and he left as the last driver in. As Team Penske showed with Brad Keselowski winning and Joey Logano finishing fourth, the Fords were fast, and Blaney spent time at the front of the field before being delayed in a pit incident. He worked his way back into the top 10 but got swept into Stewart’s wreck, ending the day 14th for a net gain of 16 points on the day.
“It was a long night for sure,” Blaney said. “We were still fast after the thing in the pits — got up to sixth, I think, and we were in a good spot until [Stewart] wrecked, got turned in front of us and it hurt the right-front pretty bad. We’ve got nine more races [before the Chase]. I just want to run the best we can and we’ll see how the points shake out.”
Winner: Trevor Bayne — The 2011 Daytona 500 winner made the biggest points gain of the night, a net of plus-27 after a third-place finish in the Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Bayne gained two places in the standings and is now seventh among drivers hunting the five remaining Chase berths, 10 points behind bubble man Blaney.
“Overall a really solid points day for us,” Bayne said. “It’s not a win that we need to get in the Chase, but it’s a great step in the right direction for making it in on points.”
Winner: Kyle Larson — Larson dodged a bullet when his Ganassi teammate McMurray bounced his Chevrolet off the No. 42 Target car. Larson held on and brought the damaged car home in sixth place, putting him 19 points behind Blaney after a net gain of 14 points on a Chase berth.
“A really good night,” Larson said. “A lot of guys around us in the points had bad nights so we made up some points on them, which is good. We just have to keep digging. We have something like eight races left until the Chase (actually nine), so that’s a lot of time as long as we don’t have any DNFs. There are some good tracks coming up for me and for our team, so hopefully we can go there and execute.”
Non-winner: Jamie McMurray — The former Daytona 500 winner didn’t have any luck Saturday. A bump with his teammate Larson appeared to cut a rear tire, sending McMurray’s Ganassi Chevrolet into the spin that collected more than half the field. The No. 1 car got out for a few more laps to gain a couple of extra points over those that sustained terminal damage, but a 34th-place finish was severely damaging to his Chase hopes. After arriving on the bubble, McMurray is now four points behind Blaney for the 16th spot.
“It seemed like a tire maybe went down and it actually felt like I hit oil,” McMurray said. “It’s unfortunate but it’s just part of plate racing.”
Non-winner: Kasey Kahne — With his position at Hendrick Motorsports being publicly questioned despite holding a contract with the team, Kahne didn’t need a bad result at Daytona. But he got one, finishing 30th despite a mammoth effort from his crew to get the No. 5 Chevrolet back on track some 40 laps down. Kahne was one spot out of making the Chase before Saturday night’s setback, and although he dropped another two places at Daytona, he remains just 13 points behind Blaney, the same deficit he faced coming in.
Non-winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. — The master of restrictor-plate racing never looked comfortable this time at Daytona, qualifying his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 16th and rarely troubling the top 10. Dale Jr. bulldozed through the 22-car melee but sustained enough damage to keep him at the tail of the field for the rest of the night. His 16th-place finish dropped him to third among winless drivers, but he still managed to make a net gain of nine points on the Chase bubble. He’s now 24 points to the good.
“I just rode around,” he said. “I couldn’t get in there and get two and three-wide because the car needed a couple lanes to run well.”