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NASCAR regular-season finale: Five bubble drivers capable of winning final playoff spot at Daytona

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Erik Jones called it a “wild card.” Aric Almirola said it was one of the most “intense” races last season. Chris Buescher said he’s “got nothing to lose.”

Racing at Daytona International Speedway has always been chaotic. But with Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 again serving as the final race of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, expect even more fireworks this time.

“I’m so happy I don’t have to win,” Almirola said with a laugh.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of drivers who won’t be in Almirola’s situation. Fifteen drivers have clinched a playoff spot through 25 races, with the 16th and final spot still up for grabs.

Tyler Reddick leads teammate Austin Dillon by 25 points going into the race. Dillon is the only driver below the playoff cutline who can still make the postseason based on points.

Everyone else is too far back and must win. Here are five who can do just that:

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1. Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon celebrates after winning the second Duel at Daytona qualifying race on Feb. 11, 2021, ahead of the Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon celebrates after winning the second Duel at Daytona qualifying race on Feb. 11, 2021, ahead of the Daytona 500.

While he can points-race his way into the playoffs, winning is still Dillon’s most likely path, and it’s hard to bet against him.

Dillon is coming of a brutal race Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, where he had one of the best cars in the field only to be wrecked by Brad Keselowski at the end of the second stage.

“I don’t know why it happened,” Dillon said. “I thought I had a little room to come up, and he just held me down there a little bit too long, I guess. I think we would have had a shot to do something there at the end with our race car.

“It’s the best car we’ve brought to the track at RCR this year, I feel like. It’s just a bummer, but we’ve got Daytona left and I just hate it.”

Don’t hate it, Austin!

Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500 in dramatic fashion, moving (wrecking) Almirola on the final lap to put the iconic No. 3 back in victory lane. Dillon finished third at Daytona this February and eighth at Talladega in April. He also won one of the two duel races ahead of this year's Daytona 500.

2. Matt DiBenedetto

Matt DiBenedetto has three top-10 finishes at Daytona International Speedway, more than at any other track.
Matt DiBenedetto has three top-10 finishes at Daytona International Speedway, more than at any other track.

DiBenedetto will certainly be the emotional pick to win after again losing his ride for the 2022 season.

Two years ago he was kicked out of the No. 95 Toyota for an up-and-coming Christopher Bell. This time it was Austin Cindric who was tabbed to replace DiBenedetto in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford at the end of the year.

While his future is uncertain, one thing is not: DiBenedetto must win at Daytona to make the playoffs.

Don’t be surprised if Matty D pulls it off, though. Remember, he led 49 laps at the Daytona 500 a few years back and finished fifth at Talladega in April.

3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. conquered Daytona International Speedway during the 2017 summer race for his second career Cup Series win.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. conquered Daytona International Speedway during the 2017 summer race for his second career Cup Series win.

Here’s your true wild card ...

Stenhouse Jr. is always a threat to win at either Daytona or Talladega, and he won this race in 2017.

The driver of the No. 47 Chevy has been known to mix it up quite a bit, too, throwing dangerous blocks and attempting some wild moves over the past few years. Other drivers around the garage haven’t been shy about their displeasure with Stenhouse’s aggressiveness, either.

Ricky, of course, doesn’t lose sleep over it.

“I could care less about what the perception from everyone else is,” Stenhouse said at Daytona 500 media day a few years ago. “I’m gonna go out, run our race the way we normally run. I like our process, the aggressiveness that we have ... it doesn’t concern me.”

4. Bubba Wallace

Two of Bubba Wallace's four career top-five finishes in the Cup Series came at Daytona International Speedway.
Two of Bubba Wallace's four career top-five finishes in the Cup Series came at Daytona International Speedway.

It’s been a tough first year at 23XI Racing for Wallace, but a win at Daytona can make that all go away.

Wallace sits well out of playoff contention with just two top-10 finishes this year, but he’s been really good at superspeedways throughout his young career, finishing in the top five twice at Daytona, including second in 2018.

It also doesn’t hurt that Denny Hamlin also co-owns Wallace’s car, along with Michael Jordan. Hamlin is pretty good at Daytona, you know.

He probably wouldn’t be the worst pusher in the world.

5. Chris Buescher

Of Chris Buescher's six career top-five finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series, three have come on the Daytona International Speedway oval and one on the Daytona road course.
Of Chris Buescher's six career top-five finishes in the NASCAR Cup Series, three have come on the Daytona International Speedway oval and one on the Daytona road course.

Don’t sleep on this guy. Buescher has quietly become one of Daytona’s best racers, especially as of late.

The 28-year-old has four top-10 finishes at Daytona since 2018, including two fifth-place showings in 2018 and a career-best third in the 2020 Daytona 500. Buescher also finished sixth and led four laps at the Talladega race last fall.

He may be 135 points out of a playoff spot, but Buescher could absolutely shake things up Saturday.

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: NASCAR at Daytona: Five drivers who could clain last Cup playoff spot