The clock is ticking on the Cup regular season and the hands will strike midnight Saturday at Daytona International Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
The series’ regular-season finale is the last chance for teams to lock themselves into the 16-driver playoff field. While William Byron, Jimmie Johnson and Matt DiBenedetto race to potentially get in on points, a slew of drivers hope to play spoiler and add themselves to the playoffs and Daytona’s recent history of Cinderella winners.
Here’s a look at drivers who have surprised us with Daytona wins and other impressive performances.
Two of the last four Cup races on the Daytona superspeedway have delivered first-time visitors to victory lane.
The most recent came last year on July 7 and was delivered by way of rain, lightning and fortunate pit strategy.
Justin Haley, a full-time Xfinity driver making just his third Cup start, inherited the lead under caution when Kurt Busch pitted after NASCAR initially declared they would go back to green a lap later. But then the red flag was displayed for lightning in the area, stopping the race with 33 laps to go.
Later, with rain falling on the track, Haley was declared the winner.
Spire Motorsports, the team Haley was racing for, will soon become a two-car team.
Haley’s win was preceded the previous July by Erik Jones‘ victory.
In his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing at the Cup level, Jones started the race in 29th. The next 167 laps saw incidents that included 26 cars, seven cars and nine cars. Jones made it to the final overtime restart on Lap 168 and passed Martin Truex Jr. on the backstretch thanks to a push from Chris Buescher. Jones went on to take the checkered flag in his 57th Cup start.
Going into Saturday’s race at Daytona, Jones is 50 points behind the cutoff spot for the playoffs. He’s not only racing for his playoff hopes, but for potential employers in 2021.
Before 2018, no Cup driver had ever earned their first two career Cup wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and then the Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon changed that.
Nine months after winning the Coke 600, Dillon delivered Richard Childress Racing another win in the “Great American Race.”
After contact with race leader Aric Almirola sent Almirola into the wall on the last lap, Dillon assumed the lead going into Turn 3. He would go unchallenged, taking the checkered flag 20 years after Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 for the only time in his career.
Wallace, making his first start in the 500 for Richard Petty Motorsports, became the highest finishing Black driver in the history of the race.
Now in a contract year and 22nd in points, Wallace will try to make the playoffs via a win on Saturday.
The Year of Stenhouse
In 2017, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. emerged as a talented – and aggressive – superspeedway driver. In May, he won from the pole at Talladega to earn his first Cup Series victory.
Two months later, Stenhouse doubled down and went to victory lane again at Daytona.
Stenhouse hasn’t found victory lane since, but the JTG Daugherty Racing driver is a constant threat on superspeedways. He finished second at Talladega in June for his eighth top five on a superspeedway.
With Stenhouse 23rd in points, he will have to find a way to win Saturday to be playoff eligible.
One More for The King
In Richard Petty’s Cup career, he won at Daytona International Speedway 10 times, including his 200th and final career win in the July 1984 race.
Thirty years later, Petty’s No. 43 went back to Daytona’s victory lane thanks to Aric Almirola and rain.
Almirola earned his first career Cup win on July 6, 2014 when rain ended the race on Lap 112.
It was the most recent win for Petty as an owner.
Other Notable Performances
There are many other noteworthy Cup drivers who need to win Saturday in order to make the playoffs.
Michael McDowell – The Front Row Motorsports driver is 24th in points. He has three career Cup top fives. Two came at Talladega and his career-best finish, fourth, came in the July 2017 Daytona race.
Ryan Newman – The Roush Fenway Racing driver is 25th in points. He won the 2008 Daytona 500 and was moments away from winning it earlier this year before he was injured in a horrific wreck that caused him to miss the next three races.
Ty Dillon – Germain Racing driver is 27th in points. Career-best finish of fourth in July 2019 Daytona race.
Matt Kenseth – The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is 28th in points after 21 starts in the No. 42 car. He won the Daytona 500 in 2009 and 2012.
Corey LaJoie – The Go Fas Racing driver is 29th in points. His career-best finish is sixth in the July 2019 Daytona race.