Buescher on hot streak, Wallace takes last playoff spot (includes video story)

RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher seized the opportunity of an overtime restart during Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway to capture his third win of the NASCAR Cup Series season.

Buescher’s No. 17 Ford Mustang was followed to the line on the final lap by teammate and car owner Brad Keselowski to complete a team 1-2 finish. Buescher only led two of the 163 laps completed in the regular season finale. 

This is Buescher’s third win in his last five races, a feat that easily surpasses the one win he picked up last year at Bristol Motor Speedway. 

For the 30-year-old, this win is the result of getting hot at the right time.

“[We] certainly talked about it after even Richmond itself, but surely after Michigan…talked about kind of hitting our momentum at the right time,” said Buescher. “This is another big step in the right direction, I think it’s safe to say we’re going to be a contender as we head into the playoffs now.”

Since Keselowski announced he would become co-owner of the formerly-named Roush Fenway Racing in 2021, the team has struggled. However that trend is coming to an end, and confidence is building in the organization after Daytona. 

“A few weeks we were sitting down, kind of going over the goal and visions, what we value. One of the things we brought up was 1-2 finishes,” said Keselowski. “Today was just another kind of feather in our cap. We’re really proud.”

There was one question hovering around the race before the green flag dropped: Which driver would take the last playoff spot? 

After the top 15 in the standings clinched a spot in the postseason, the final place was settled between more than a dozen drivers. This includes rookie Ty Gibbs, Daniel Suárez, AJ Allmendinger, Alex Bowman and Bubba Wallace. Wallace came home 12th in his No. 23 Toyota Camry, securing the 16th and final playoff spot on points.

Notably eliminated from playoff contention was 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. After running out of fuel with 36 laps to go at Watkins Glen last Sunday, Elliott faced a lofty 69-point deficit for 16th place in the standings going into Daytona. Despite a fourth-place finish, the driver of the No. 9 will not make the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season in 2016. 

“It’s a bummer,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “This season hasn’t been what I would want, by any means, but certainly going to be some lessons taken from it.” 

In a similar fashion to February’s Daytona 500, the race was decided in overtime. The event was largely free of cautions, though, as there were only two for on-track incidents. 

The first came shortly before the end of stage two at lap 96 when Gibbs got loose in turn four and twisted Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 hard into the outside wall. The accident dashed playoff hopes for both Gibbs and Allmendinger. There were 12 cars involved. 

Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 Advance Auto Parts Ford Mustang (left) gets turned into the SAFER barrier on lap 96 after contact with Ty Gibbs. (Courtesy of NASCAR)

Lap 157 featured the scariest crash of the night.

Ryan Preece’s No. 41 RaceChoice Ford Mustang was in front of Erik Jones’ No. 43 when he was pushed sideways on the backstretch. Preece first hit pole-sitter Chase Briscoe before sliding into the grass. The car caught air and hit the ground on its roof, viciously tumbling 10 times before landing on all four wheels. 

Preece was evaluated at a nearby hospital and discharged Sunday morning, according to Stewart-Haas Racing. 

It is the third recorded flip in the Next-Gen era of NASCAR. The other two happened in 2022 with Harrison Burton at the Daytona 500 and Buescher at the Coca-Cola 600. All three cars were Fords. 

Martin Truex Jr. finished 24th in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 and locked up the regular season championship over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin. 

“For the regular season championship, it’s a huge deal,” said Truex Jr. post-race. “The 15 points that come along with it are very, very important for the Playoffs.”

Aric Almirola finished the event in third and Joey Logano closed out the top 5. Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Kevin Harvick and Corey LaJoie finished the rest of the top 10. 

The full NASCAR Playoff grid after Daytona:

  1. No. 19 – Martin Truex Jr.
  2. No. 24 – William Byron
  3. No. 11 – Denny Hamlin
  4. No. 17 – Chris Buescher
  5. No. 8 – Kyle Busch
  6. No. 5 – Kyle Larson
  7. No. 20 – Christopher Bell
  8. No. 1 – Ross Chastain
  9. No. 6 – Brad Keselowski
  10. No. 45 – Tyler Reddick
  11. No. 22 – Joey Logano
  12. No. 12 – Ryan Blaney
  13. No. 34 – Michael McDowell
  14. No. 47 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  15. No. 4 – Kevin Harvick
  16. No. 23 – Bubba Wallace

The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway for the Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday, September 3. USA Network will broadcast the race at 6 p.m. ET

Kenneth Bueno is a junior majoring in the Digital Broadcasting field. He is a sim racing commentator for Podium eSports and aims to apply his love for sports into the sports broadcasting industry after graduating.