NASCAR Cup Series at Daytona with two playoff spots available

AP file photo by Steve Helber / Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney has not won a points race this season but is in good shape for one of the final two spots in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs heading into the regular-season finale Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brad Keselowski likes his chances at Daytona International Speedway, which is somewhat strange considering his recent results at the famed track.

Keselowski has crashed eight times in his past 11 starts at the superspeedway and finished worse than 30th six times. He's hardly the only unlucky one at Daytona, where unusual winners and odd top-10 results are as common as three-wide racing and multicar wrecks.

So maybe Keselowski should feel confident heading into the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale Saturday night, when the 2012 series champion and 14 other drivers will battle for the final two playoff spots.

"It goes without saying, but this race is going to be wild," Keselowski said. "I told the team that if I can be one of the last 10 cars left on the last restart, we'll have a shot, and that's about all you can ask for, especially in this type of scenario.

"We know we have speed and feel really good about our chances. We just need everything to align to make it happen."

In his first year as a driver/owner at Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, the former Team Penske wheelman needs a victory to make the postseason for the 10th consecutive year. It's the longest streak of anyone outside the current playoff field.

Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher, Harrison Burton, Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Todd Gilliland, Justin Haley, Erik Jones, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bubba Wallace are the other do-or-die guys.

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the only drivers who haven't yet locked up playoff spots and can make it without winning at Daytona, and at least one of them is guaranteed to get in.

Blaney was the winner of the NASCAR All-Star Race in May, a victory that provided a $1 million prize to the Penske driver but no points. His best finish otherwise this season was third at Nashville Superspeedway in June, but his consistency has him third in the standings with 779 points. He trails regular-season champion Chase Elliott (922) and reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Larson (788), who won last weekend at Watkins Glen International, posting his second victory this season but first since February.

Truex, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran who won the 2017 title with Furniture Row Racing and has been a regular as one of the final four contenders for the championship, leads the series in stage wins this year and ranks sixth in points.

If Blaney or Truex wins, the other automatically gets in on points. If a driver already locked into the postseason lands in victory lane, both Blaney and Truex would advance based on points. If there's another new winner, whoever ends the night with more points between Blaney and Truex would be in the playoffs.

Blaney needs 31 points to clinch a spot and could do it during the race. If he scores no stage points, he would need to finish sixth or better.

Blaney and Truex got help Thursday when Kurt Busch announced he would miss the start of the playoffs with concussion-like symptoms that have sidelined him for six weeks. His team, 23XI Racing, withdrew the medical waiver that was holding his postseason spot.

"To me, the strategy at Daytona is to just try to stay up front as much as possible or as close to the front as you can and hope that when the big crash happens, it's behind you," Truex said. "As much of a wild-card race as this is, I think we'll have a good shot at winning, and it'd be a great time to get our first superspeedway win with everything on the line."

The 37-car field will have 14 drivers with a victory in 2022, 15 vying for the final two playoff spots, five ineligible for the postseason because they're getting points in another national series and three already eliminated: Corey LaJoie, David Ragan and Cody Ware.

Thunderstorms washed out practice and qualifying Friday, putting Larson in pole position in the starting lineup because of a formula that places significant emphasis on the previous race's results. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott, who was involved in a controversial ending with Larson at Watkins Glen, will start on the outside of the first row to put two Chevrolets up front.

Joey Logano in a Team Penske Ford and Suarez in a Trackhouse Racing Chevy will form the second row. JGR's Christopher Bell is next and has the best starting spot for a Toyota driver.

Sticking around

Suarez said he was never concerned about his racing future and insists he won't be down the road despite signing a one-year contract extension with Trackhouse for 2023 that was announced Friday.

Suarez made it clear he accepted a short-term deal with the belief it could lead to long-term job security once NASCAR and its teams have more financial clarity after the series lands a new media rights deal. That's expected to happen by the end of next year.

"The same way that I wasn't worried about this contract, I'm not really worried about next year, either," Suarez said. "... Trackhouse is my home now. They know that, and we're working together extremely well."

The deal provides some stability for Suarez, who bounced around for the first four years of his Cup Series career. He began at JGR in 2017, moved to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 and then landed at Gaunt Brothers Racing the following year.

His contract is the latest in a series of team extension announcements, including Blaney and Logano at Penske and Bubba Wallace at 23XI.

In addition, Almirola is putting off retirement and remaining at SHR for at least another year, maybe more. The team announced Friday that he has signed a multiyear agreement that includes more financial backing from longtime sponsor Smithfield Foods.

Almirola, 38, is completing his 11th consecutive year with Smithfield as a sponsor but said he discovered a new balance between family and racing in 2022. His wife and two kids joined him for most race weekends as they turned the work trips into mini vacations by visiting ballparks and hitting tourist spots across the country.