Chaos is Daytona International Speedway’s calling card.
The more mayhem the merrier.
NASCAR decision-makers aimed to capitalize on the pandemonium when they turned the Coke Zero Sugar 400 into the finale of the regular season rather than its Fourth of July showcase.
After a pair of duds since the summer switch in 2020, Saturday night’s race has a chance to deliver plenty of fireworks.
“It will be a wild night, I’m sure,” said 2021 Cup Series champion Kyle Larson.
Reaching Victory Lane is the goal at the iconic speedway with a rich history. The race for two spots in the Cup Series postseason offers an appetizing secondary plot.
“Every lap is going to matter and impact the playoffs,” track president Frank Kelleher said. “We haven’t had that storyline in the past.”
The bedlam actually began Thursday when Kurt Busch withdrew from the playoffs after sitting out six weeks with concussion-like symptoms.
The decision opened up another spot for the postseason and turbo-charged the chances of top drivers Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. to reach the 16-car Cup Series playoffs.
Blaney or Truex will qualify based on points no matter what happens Saturday night. Blaney, the race’s 2021 winner, sits in third place in the standings at 779, 25 points ahead of Truex Jr., a playoff fixture since 2014.
The other spot is available for 13 other drivers — many with past success on Daytona’s iconic 2.5-mile oval. If none of the non-winners reach Victory Lane, Blaney and Truex move on to the playoff-opening Sept. 4 race at Darlington Raceway.
“There’s only one spot left in the playoffs and we’re going to Daytona. Like how much cooler can it get?” said veteran Aric Almirola, the 2014 Coke Zero Sugar 400 champion.
Almirola and six other drivers in must-win situations have either captured the Daytona 500 or the summer 400-miler. Two won the 500-mile race — Michael McDowell (2021) and Austin Dillon (2018) — and four the Coke Zero Sugar 400 — Justin Haley (2019), Erik Jones (2018), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017), Brad Keselowski (2016).
“Look at the guys currently out of the playoffs, starting with myself, we are very capable of going down to Daytona and winning,” Almirola said. “We’ve done it before. I’ve got a handful of wins down at Daytona in various series.
“I’m very familiar with where Victory Lane is.”
To reach the finish line first, a driver first must stay in the race.
Larson’s last two trips to Daytona ended in crashes. The 2021 Cup Series champion has led just two laps during his last nine trip to the Florida’s Surf Coast, a span also featuring just one finish inside the top-10.
“I feel like I’ve tried every strategy and none of them have worked out,” he said. “I think a lot of times patience pays off.”
Patience, nerve and good fortune can be a winning combination. The new “Next Gen” has eliminated many of the engineering advantages top teams enjoyed in the past since everyone now drives the same setup.
A key difference Saturday will be each driver’s agenda.
“I don’t know what’s going through other drivers’ minds that have to win to make the playoffs,” Larson said. “We’re in the playoffs, but we still need to go for points as we head into the playoffs. You need to finish the race up front to do that.”
More than 40% of the 37-car field is moving onto the postseason whatever happens; Blaney and Truex are suddenly pulling for each other to have a big night; and 13 other drivers have to win to get in.
“Someone can come in here and hit that walk-off home run,” Kelleher said.
Swinging for the fences at Daytona International Speedway has long been the sport’s ultimate risk-reward proposition. Given the playoff implications, all bets are off.
“It’s definitely going to be an action-packed race,” 2008 winner Kyle Busch said. “Everybody kind of goes for broke — it’s all or nothing.”