By R. Boden
For most professional leagues, the final week of the regular season generally means a little time off for the starters, reduced ticket prices, coach firings, awkwardly scheduled game times…I could go on and on. But not for the 2022 NASCAR season. By and far, it’s all eyes on Saturday night as the Cup Series heads to crown jewel Daytona International Speedway to put a primetime, regular season bow on things. 160 laps are all that remains for 15 drivers to prove that they have what it takes to make it to the postseason, and for most, there is but one option- win. In a season riddled with bad blood and awkward exchanges, it all comes down to this…where a slight of the wrist can end the night- and the entire season- for over half the field. Two spots remain. One race to go. You know the drill.
Driver to Fade: William Byron – Yes, he logged two wins here in 2020, but his stats on superspeedways since aren’t so great. He finished 38th here in February and 15th at Talladega in April. Last year at Daytona? 26th and 37th, respectively. The last few weeks, momentum just hasn’t been on his side. He’s logged one top ten over the last 11 races. Buying low on him this week.
Dark Horse: Aric Almirola- Remember when I said earlier in the year that I wasn’t quite ready to count Almirola out of 2022 yet? The spark is still there. After recently announcing he’s down for one more go-round in 2023, don’t expect him to exit 2022 quietly. With a résumé of Top 10s and a couple wins at Daytona, he’ll be all pedal to the medal on Saturday night. He finished 5th here in February, and he knows what’s at stake on Saturday night. He’s one of those guys who needs nothing less than a first-place finish.
Top 10: Brad Keselowski- Strong showings here to start the year. The winner of one of the Gatorade Duels and a 9th place finish at the ensuing 500, I like his odds. It looks like he’s starting to figure things out, both as a next-gen racer and a businessman, with his finishes getting better- not great, but getting better- over the second half of the season. He’s another one- he’s gotta win to make the big dance.
Winner: Denny Hamlin- Expertise and pure experience wins this race. As we saw last night, luck doesn’t tend to favor those who push a little too hard, too quick. I think we see quite a few leaders tonight, but patience will be key. Hamlin has shown he can survive carnage and chaos (Coke 600, ahem…), and he does it again tonight at Daytona Beach.
Hang on to your seats, folks.