It’s safe to say it was brilliant having Daytona serve as the cutoff race between the regular season and the playoffs.
As expected, the bubble drivers (Jimmie Johnson, William Byron and Matt DiBenedetto) tried to find ways to be in the top 10 from the start in order to gain stage points.
Johnson was the best at that, finishing fifth in each stage to earn eight more stage points than Byron and DiBenedetto. And it almost got him in the playoffs.
In the end, Johnson still would have needed to finish ahead of DiBenedetto to advance. And that wasn’t happening after getting caught up in a wreck that caused him to finish the race with the hood barely attached to the car.
Only 20 drivers completed all 164 laps thanks to a pair of late wrecks, one occurring after a four-wide battle for the lead with two laps to go. We expected a wild race and we got it.
Having Daytona as the cutoff race made everyone more desperate to win than ever. Those not locked into the playoffs had to be aggressive to get up front. The ones already in had nothing to lose and everything to gain with five playoff points up for grabs.
It might seem a little quirky or unfair to decide a playoff field at Daytona, considering the luck involved in superspeedway racing, but there were 25 other opportunities to win or earn enough points to be locked in.
It’s about entertainment value in the end, and Daytona was plenty entertaining.
Now that the field is set, who actually has a chance to make a run at the title?
Since only 14 points separate Martin Truex Jr. in sixth and DiBenedetto in 16th, even making the Round of 12 appears to be a wide open race. In reality, it’s not.
It was fun to see rookie Cole Custer get that run on the outside at Kentucky and steal a win, but the playoffs will end early for him.
Look for Byron, Aric Almirola and DiBenedetto to be among the first to be eliminated. One bad race will keep Byron from advancing, the next three tracks haven’t been great for Almirola and DiBenedetto might need to win at Bristol to make it through the first cut.
Next on the chopping block will be Austin Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch.
That leaves three races to cut the playoff field in half for the championship race at Phoenix.
Behind Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, it’ll be tight for the remaining two spots. It’ll be up to the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to find a way to beat this season’s dominant duo.
It’s not easy to score more than 700 points at Daytona in the Riley Racing Challenge. This week’s local winner was able to do that. Susan Patterson of Jefferson City correctly picked Chase Elliott, Hamlin and Truex. Jr to finish second, third and fourth, respectively. Those 75 bonus points helped the total score reach 734 points. The wrecks didn’t help the News Tribune sports staff. Tom Rackers scored 648 points, I got 600 and Greg Jackson totaled 597. Ten more races to go.