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Purists are old enough to recall when Daytona International Speedway’s 400-miler had “Firecracker” in the title, a delightfully alliterative race name often supplemented by art of exploding fireworks. Up until 1987, that event was held on July 4 — regardless of what day of the week the holiday fell on — and pre-noon start times were the norm before high-tech lighting made nighttime racing a possibility.
Purists might scoff at the NASCAR Cup Series schedule’s most recent twist, which plucked the 400 from the Independence Day slot it had held since the historic Florida track opened in 1959. There’s something to be said for planting new traditions, too, because the scheduling gods have created a firecracker of an event.
For the second consecutive year, the Cup Series will stage its regular-season finale in Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Daytona. The unpredictable and perilous nature of superspeedway racing adds an extra layer of drama to the pressure-packed night, flinging the door wide open for a host of drivers vying for the 16th playoff spot — the final one available.
A schedule shift of such magnitude may have been written in the stars long before last year’s regular-season finale, an overtime classic won in clutch fashion by first-time winner William Byron. Stray chatter about Daytona potentially hosting the season-ending race in November even pre-dates the 10-race playoff format’s embryo phase. But a superspeedway end to the 26-race regular season was seemingly foretold four years ago at, of all things, a car unveiling.
Denny Hamlin had just helped to pull the cover off a new FedEx design for his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in October 2017. Talladega Superspeedway, a sister track to Daytona, was coming up on the schedule, and the venue had just been moved away from an elimination juncture in the playoff rotation. Hamlin talked about the schedule’s subtle impact, then was asked — for grins — where he would place Talladega if given full rein with the racing calendar.
“I think it should be the last race before the playoffs,” Hamlin said. One reporter stifled a bewildered half-laugh, but Hamlin wasn’t joking. “I think that is the ultimate wild-card spot, and if you want to see the craziest Talladega race ever, it would be right before the playoffs started to have that, because you’re going to have — what is this, probably 28 cars or so with their last opportunity to make it into the playoffs. To me, it’s a no-brainer where it should be in the schedule, but getting the tracks to agree to something like that is going to be very hard.”
Had such a move actually been brought up to the powers-that-be at the time? “It’s been floated with a side of push in it,” Hamlin said. “I think it would be the ultimate cutoff race. Talk about not knowing whether you’re in or out until the last lap, that would be the race.”
And now it is, only swapping in Daytona for Talladega as the superspeedway wild-card component.
Last year’s first run produced the fireworks that one might expect in July. Every push or dose of aero momentum was treated like an ounce of precious metal, and the running standings ticker stayed in continual flux.
Tyler Reddick typified the desperation of the final 10 laps with a bold move for his playoff survival that chopped the advances of Kyle Busch, triggering a 10-car stack-up that thinned the field of several front-runners. Jimmie Johnson’s hopes of making the playoffs in his final full Cup Series season fizzled in an 11-car melee that erupted just seven laps later.
Byron was left standing at the end, checkered flag and playoff berth in hand after one of the most compelling races of the season. Ask any of the contenders lacing up their driving shoes for Saturday’s Daytona reprise and more pyrotechnics are to be expected.
“It‘s going to be balls to the wall for anybody that‘s top 30 in points,” Busch said
Purists, buckle up.