Podium Preview: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

Undoubtedly, tonight's Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona will provide plentiful excitement. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Undoubtedly, tonight’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona will provide plentiful excitement. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Without a doubt, tonight’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona presents more stress and excitement for a regular-season finale unlike any other. Certainly, drivers and teams find themselves at the mercy of others, especially in those packs.

Similarly, pit crews have extra incentive with busting off their fastest pit stops to date in 2020. Every second certainly matters with smooth, accurate pit stops in green flag and caution conditions.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists, consisting of columnists, photographers, and fans, preview the racing action. This weekend, Ashley HobbsCody Shoppe, Kobe LambethMatteo MarcheschiMichelle RaynorTerra Jones, and yours truly consider the most impactful moment of the regular season and drivers worth watching tonight!

Podium Preview: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

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Question 1
In the end, NASCAR stands alongside Bubba Wallace and a better future.

In the end, NASCAR stands alongside Bubba Wallace and a better future.

With the 2020 regular season ending with the drop of the checkers of this Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, what has been the most significant moment, positive or negative, for NASCAR so far in the 2020 season?

Sisoler :  The pandemic has definitely been a big factor that has hurt all of the American sports, but also one of the most significant moments has to be NASCAR shedding some of its Southern ties by banning the Confederate flag and taking a firm stance against racism. Yes, it may alienate some of its die-hard Southern base, but it opens up a lot of new sponsorship opportunities and hopefully will show America and the world that NASCAR is committed toward a diverse, inclusive future.

Hobbs :  How can you not say this darn pandemic? This changed everything about the 2020 season. While some interesting things came out of it – different tracks, a few doubleheaders, the “Choose Rule” – it was a drain on some teams’ on-track performance. Without a doubt, a few drivers have consistently benefited from the pandemic regular season, while the rest have struggled to find the magic. Even with (finally) no more random drawing for starting position, it has still favored the same few drivers. The 2020 season will always have an asterisk in my mind because of the drastic changes that took place.

Jones :  When I first saw the question, I immediately thought, “COVID.” Then I laughed when I saw that Hobbs answered the same! But, in all seriousness, it has been the focal point of, as well as the catalyst for, so much of this NASCAR season. Without it, would we have gone to Bristol for the All-Star Race? Without it, would we have tried doubleheaders and mid-week races? Would we have finally seen all three top series on the Daytona Road Course? Would Denny and Kevin still be dominating? Who knows. But, given how many changes (temporary or long-term) we’ve seen for this season, it’s all been because of this pandemic. 

Shoppe :  I’d say the most significant moment came just before we were about to start another “normal” weekend at Atlanta in March when suddenly everything changed. At that point of uncertainty, it looked like this was a big negative. But the way NASCAR led the way for sports to return from the COVID break, it was a huge win for our sport. It has been amazing work by industry leaders, race teams, and local officials working together to catch up to be in a place to start the playoffs on time! 

Lambeth :  In my opinion, I think the most significant moment at this point in the 2020 season does not involve anything that happened on the track. NASCAR has been making progressive changes off the track. Watching the entire Cup garage rally around Bubba Wallace when they believed a hate crime had been committed with the noose incident showed that times are changing. It was a powerful moment that I will never forget. Then, drivers and other members of the NASCAR community have pledged to take a step back to learn, listen, and educate themselves to come to a level of understanding of the social issues in our society.

Plus, the banning of the Confederate flag from all NASCAR tracks, after Wallace called for its removal, showed us that the executives were listening. NASCAR appears to be working incredibly hard to make the sport more inclusive for people from all walks of life. In the next decade, I think we will see a more diverse group of fans and individuals working in the sport. It will only get better!

Question 2
Can Jimmie Johnson may one last "rAlly" to the Playoffs? (Photo Credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Can Jimmie Johnson may one last “rAlly” to the Playoffs? (Photo Credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images)

Daytona is known as a track where dreams can be made (Dale Earnhardt Sr., Erik Jones, Justin Haley) or broken (Ryan Newman, Mark Martin) in a flash.
Who do you think could be a driver this weekend who could see their playoff dreams realized who might be flying under the radar (i.e. not inside the top 20 in points) realized with a win?
Which of the non-locked in drivers in the top 16 in points right now do you see possibly coming out of Daytona heartbroken after this weekend?

Marcheschi :  Chris Buescher finished third in the Daytona 500, right behind Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney. He also finished sixth at Talladega in June. In fact, of Buescher’s six career top-five finishes, three of them have come at Daytona, including both races in 2018. He even finished fifth at the Daytona road course only two weeks ago. Buescher could vault from 21st in points into the playoffs, knocking one unlucky driver out.

One driver that looks to lose a shot at the playoffs is Matt DiBenedetto. DiBenedetto has been in a playoff position for nearly the entire season. But he’s now fallen only nine points to the good heading into Daytona. If DiBenedetto gets caught up in a wreck and Jimmie Johnson and William Byron survive the carnage, the driver of the No, 21 could well find himself outside the playoffs at the end of the night. That’s not to mention the possibility of a winner like Chris Buescher that could jump past DiBenedetto, knocking him out of the postseason.

Tiongson :  This is a fun and tough question. In terms of a driver who might realize their Playoff dream at Daytona with a victory, it’s hard to not look at Matt DiBenedetto. As fans recall, DiBenedetto was quite dominant in the 2019 Daytona 500 before getting involved in a late-race crash. If there’s ever a time for Guido to respond and punch his way into his first postseason experience, it’s this Saturday night at Daytona.

As for a driver who might leave Daytona heartbroken, I have my concerns for the Hendrick Motorsports camp. William Byron and Jimmie Johnson are on opposite ends of the Playoff bubble. On one hand, Byron is currently in while Johnson hopes to urge his way in on Saturday night.

Daytona doesn’t allow drivers to control their fate. They’re almost at the mercy of this 2.5-mile superspeedway.  Let’s face it: drivers must find the right drafting partner or simply optimize their track position strategy. We’ve seen drivers play it safe and leave Daytona disappointed. And we’ve seen those who’ve been aggressive but leave “The World Center of Racing” in despair.  I can’t imagine Byron and Johnson being too thrilled if they’re eliminated from postseason contention after this wild card of a regular-season finale.

Raynor : This is tough for me. I’d say Matt B. He’s been doing really good and I could see someone new winning the race this weekend. It’s Daytona so it’s all about surviving and being lucky. As far as the second question, I’d say Jimmie Johnson. It just hasn’t been his year and it’s unfortunate since it’s his last full-time year. 

No matter the time of year, the second superspeedway race at Daytona brings out so much interest and intrigue! Next, we reflect on last weekend’s Drydene 311 doubleheader weekend at Dover!
Was there ever any doubt for Denny Hamlin?

Was there ever any doubt for Denny Hamlin?

And those points got a bit closer.

And those points got a bit closer.

Michigan Matt makes another masterful pick.

Michigan Matt makes another masterful pick.

And the points race truly tightens up.

And the points race truly tightens up.

Now, Ashley Hobbs provides her numbers worth considering for tonight’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona!
First, here's how your favorite team fares in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

First, here’s how your favorite team fares in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Surely, Chevrolet must like their chances tonight.

Surely, Chevrolet must like their chances tonight.

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Will Daytona treat Rowdy nicely?

Will Daytona treat Rowdy nicely?

Here's the trends for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 since 2010.

Here’s the trends for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 since 2010.

Next, here's the trends in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 since 2015.

Next, here’s the trends in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 since 2015.

Oh, any surprise here?

Oh, any surprise here?

Last but not least, here’s our picks for tonight’s Coke Zero Sugar 400!
It's a crowded house of mostly Ford racers (except Mr. Hamlin).

It’s a crowded house of mostly Ford racers (except Mr. Hamlin).

Jones :  To echo myself from last week, “Why not?!” But, the No. 34 team typically stands out at the superspeedway. Michael McDowell usually finds himself in contention (or at least nearby). He wants this so badly. And I think he has as good a chance as anyone when it comes to the chaos that Daytona can bring. Watch for him to snag his first Cup Series win Saturday night under the lights.

Shoppe :  Denny Hamlin, the Daytona 500 winner, will sweep the Daytona (oval) races in 2020.

TPF Stats :  We’re playing it safe with Kevin Harvick, the man I calculated to win way more times than he has this year; but with nothing to lose, let’s go for more playoff points!

Lambeth :  With the final race of the regular season being at Daytona, I expect a lot of chaos, drama, and surprises. To make the playoffs more interesting, we could get a surprise winner to shake up the playoff picture. Look for Chris Buescher to get Roush Fenway Racing its first win of the year, securing a playoff berth after Ryan Newman came close to winning the Daytona 500!

Marcheschi :  In this final race before the playoffs, Chris Buescher will turn the playoff picture upside down. He’ll win his second career race and his first in over four years. In a year that saw his teammate survive a horrific crash at Daytona, Buescher will change the story for Roush Fenway Racing at the famed superspeedway.

Tiongson :  I may have better luck beating Silver Surfer on Nintendo than picking any driver in a Cup race this year. However, I’ll be transparent and choose Ryan Blaney for the win!

Hobbs :  He has been the best on restrictor-plate races this year. Sure, there have only been two races, but his average finish is 1.5.

Sisoler :  While the odds over the season would hint at using Kevin Harvick or Denny Hamlin, I’m going with the driver of the No. 12 Ford Mustang for Team Penske. He’s proven to be adept at winning on the superspeedways, moreover, he’s proven he can survive the carnage at superspeedways.

Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into this tonight’s race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Let’s stay connected as we focus on getting back together on the track soon!  Please stay safe, wear a mask, and wash your hands often!

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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