The very word brings joy to most racing fans. Since 1959, the high banks of Daytona International Speedway have been the scene of high drama, tight finishes, grand celebrations and historic moments.
The track is a magnet of sorts. Like Darlington, Bristol and Indianapolis, it’s a racing capital that is on everyone’s must-do list.
Well, maybe not everyone.
This week, the 2.5-mile track will be a pressure cooker for drivers, crew chiefs and other team members. Race time likely will be hot, humid and sticky, adding to the tense nature of the evening. It won’t necessarily be a fun night.
Daytona drama will be ratcheted to the highest level Saturday night because of the circumstances. The Coke Zero Sugar 400 is the final race of the Cup Series regular season, marking the last chance drivers still sitting on the outside of the playoffs have to move into the Group of 16 that will chase the 2023 championship.
Searching for a playoff spot in the final race of the regular season would create drama at virtually any track, but the fact that the race is at one of motorsports’ fastest facilities and one of racing’s most unpredictable courses makes things doubly difficult.
A long race at Daytona presents numerous challenges. Most drivers’ natural tendency is to try to run up front, but that can be dangerous territory at DIS. The so-called Big One, a wreck at Daytona and Talladega, its sister track, involving a string of cars, often sucks in innocent victims and can end a driver’s day well before halfway.
Some drivers try to outmaneuver Daytona’s devilry by lingering near the back of the field and (hopefully) avoiding the Big One. This can work as far as keeping the fenders on one’s car, but the strategy doesn’t often result in race wins.
Trackhouse Racing driver Daniel Suarez probably needs a race win Saturday to make the playoffs. He finished 22nd Sunday at Watkins Glen International. Teammate Ross Chastain has a victory and is in the hunt for the championship.
Trackhouse personnel will be working intensely this week to give Suarez the best car and the best shot at rolling home in victory lane at Daytona and thus into the chase for the series title.
Suarez has encouraging recent history at Daytona. In the season-opening Daytona 500, he finished seventh after leading three laps. Suarez has raced in a dozen Cup events at DIS.
At Talladega, Suarez has finishes of eighth and ninth in the past two races.
Success at Daytona often is tied to the draft, and Suarez can expect help in that arena from Chastain. Of course, Chastain will be driving in search of the checkered flag, also, but it helps to have a teammate nearby if circumstances open the door for Suarez in the closing laps.