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Playoff Bubble Set to Burst Saturday Night in Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

Bubba Wallace holds a 32-point advantage over Ty Gibbs for the final Playoff spot heading into Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, but a shocking win from any winless Playoffs-eligible driver could shake things up dramatically.


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Heading into Saturday night's NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, there are 15 drivers who are as cool as the other side of the pillow. Those 15 drivers would be the ones who have already secured their Playoff berths.

For the remainder of the field, Saturday's 400-mile contest serves as a pressure cooker. With one last chance to make it into the championship battle, the needle on the pressure gauge has snapped off, and the cooker is set to explode at any moment.

As is always the case with superspeedway racing, the drivers will battle in close quarters for the duration of the event, and one minor slip-up could spell trouble for 10-15-20 or more cars.

Superspeedway racing is already an anxiety-inducing event. Sprinkle in the Playoff implications, and my, oh my.

Among the most nervous heading into the race has to be Bubba Wallace. The driver of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota Camry, by all accounts, has done what he's needed to do. He has a 32-point advantage over Ty Gibbs for the final Playoff position heading into the final regular-season race. But that advantage can be wiped out in an instant if Wallace is swept up in an early crash, or if another driver vying for a Playoff spot emerges as the winner on Saturday night.

Fortunately for Wallace, he has shown a penchant for running well at Daytona, as evidenced by his three runner-up finishes at the 2.5-mile track in Daytona Beach. Also working in Wallace's favor is the fact that his team owner Denny Hamlin, who is locked into the Playoffs and also drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, will have his back over his JGR teammate Ty Gibbs if it comes down to needing a late-race shove for the win.

"Certainly it's important to be a good leader for the team that I own. It's also important to be a good teammate. I'm going to work with both of them equally [throughout the race]. But right now, if I had to choose, and they're side-by-side going to the line at the 0.001% chance that that happens, then obviously, I'll probably lean to the No. 23's side," Hamlin stated on Friday.

If there is no new Playoff eligible winner on Saturday night, Wallace can lock his place in the Playoffs by scoring 24 points in the event. That would equate to a 13th-place finish without any Stage Points. But the general mood around Daytona seems to be the full expectation that one of the drivers in desperation mode will find their way to victory lane.

If either Gibbs or Wallace is going to score a win to punch their ticket into the Playoffs on Saturday night, they'll have to first go through the Stewart-Haas Racing duo of Chase Briscoe and Aric Almirola, who will start from the front row of the race.

Briscoe, 31st in the championship standings, and Almirola, 25th in the championship standings, can completely flip the script on their seasons with a surprise victory. But with all four Stewart-Haas Racing cars showing impressive speed in qualifying, and with how competitive they were in the season-opening Daytona 500 prior to race-ending crashes, they may be more like favorites than surprises heading into the race.

"All of our cars were fast," Ryan Preece, who will start ninth in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, said of the Daytona 500. "[We're] Definitely very high on confidence. I know we maxed out everything we could in qualifying so we can have a good starting spot and hopefully keep that track position. I know our plan is to race all day."

The SHR organization knows that it will take a win for each of their three non-locked-in drivers to make it into the Playoff field. Preece, and likely his teammates, all plan to be ultra-aggressive on Saturday night.

"I think the biggest thing is you have to be aggressive," Preece said of his gameplan. "You have to lead laps. You have to be up front. You have to push. You have to do all of those things to be able to put yourself in a position to capitalize. Our goal is to win this race. That's it. It's either victory lane or do whatever bold move it takes."

Daniel Suárez says he is managing the pressure of the weekend well. The reason very well could be that while your day can be over at any time at a superspeedway race, you can also pull off things that aren't possible on normal race weekends at Daytona and Talladega.

"We all know that here at Daytona, anything can happen," Suárez explained. "You can be very, very fast, dominate the race, and win the race. Or you can be very, very slow with a wrecked car and you could still win the race. Anything is possible here. We just have to be at the right place at the right time. Hopefully, we have a little bit of luck on our side, and we avoid a couple of wrecks and go up front and stay up front."

The unique wrinkle that is a challenge for Chevrolet teams like Suárez's is that there is a heavy contingent of bowtie teams that are on the outside of the Playoffs cutline this season compared to last year. Suárez says it'll make coordinating who to push and work with throughout the race difficult.

"Last year, we were in a completely different situation. The only Chevy key partner that wasn't in the Playoffs was Austin Dillon, so we would all try to help each other like we always do, but the priority was the No. 3 car. Right now, there are four of us. So, who are we going to help? It's a little more tricky. It's not as easy as last year."

While Suárez finds it difficult to have manufacturer teammates battling for a Playoff berth with him, imagine how Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman feel. The Hendrick Motorsports duo, who are perennial Playoff contenders, each missed significant portions of the season due to injury. And now they find themselves in a situation where at least one -- and very possibly both -- of them can miss out on the Playoffs.

While Elliott says the possibility of missing out on the Playoffs is a situation that sucks, he hopes the battle for the win comes down to himself and Bowman on Saturday night.

"I hope it comes down to the two of us because that means one of us is going to get in -- Or one of us has a good shot of getting in if it's he and I racing to the line," Elliott said. "I hope that's the case for the sake of Hendrick Motorsports. Alex and I typically work really well together on these tracks. Ironically enough, we're in a position where one of us is going to be left short. It's part of racing. I'm looking forward to it, and I know he is too. We've talked about it a lot this week. We're excited and ready to do battle."

Along with the aforementioned drivers, AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Harrison Burton, and Ty Dillon are all attempting to find a glass slipper on Saturday evening.

In all, there are 17 eligible drivers in the field for Saturday night's race that can advance into the Playoffs with a victory. The only problem? There's just one glass slipper available for 17 Cinderella stories. Who will get it done? Can any of them get it done?

The NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway is set for Saturday, August 26th at 7:00 PM ET. NBC will televise the race, while MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will provide the radio broadcast of the event.

Photo Credit: Lesley Ann Miller, Courtesy of Toyota Racing

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