One race, one space. That combination means there will be maximum drama as NASCAR concludes its 2021 regular season Saturday night.
More than a dozen drivers will be racing for the last open spot in the Cup Series playoff field in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7:45 p.m. ET green flag; NBC, TSN5, MRN). To add to the intrigue, two of those drivers can get into the playoffs more than one way.
Expect chaos on the superspeedway as a result.
Sporting News breaks down how each of the drivers on the bubble can race their way into the playoffs in their final opportunity.
MORE: Watch Saturday’s NASCAR race live with fuboTV (free 7-day trial)
NASCAR points standings 2021
Below are the top 30 drivers entering the Coke Zero 400. Playoff drivers are in bold; bubble drivers are in italics. Only drivers who finish in top 30 of the point standings are eligible for the playoffs. No full-time Cup Series driver currently outside the top 30 can enter it via Saturday’s race.
|6||Martin Truex Jr.||3||789|
|18||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||0||504|
Who’s on the Cup Series playoff bubble?
Fifteen drivers are, in fact, on the bubble. They have not won a race in 2021, have not yet clinched a playoff berth on points, are in the top 30 in the points standings and are full-time drivers in the Cup Series. They would clinch the final spot with a win Saturday night.
The 15, per NASCAR.com: Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie and Anthony Alfredo.
Dillon, Stenhouse, Newman and Jones are all past winners at Daytona. Dillon (2018) and Newman (2008) won the Daytona 500, while Stenhouse and Jones won the summer race. Reddick, meanwhile, has finished 27th, 28th, 29th and 27th in four career races on the Daytona oval.
DAYTONA LINEUP: Starting order, pole for Coke Zero Sugar 400 without qualifying
Reddick and Dillon, teammates at Richard Childress Racing, are the only two bubble drivers who can also secure the spot on points alone. NASCAR’s 16-driver playoff field consists of the regular-season points champion (Kyle Larson leads Denny Hamlin by 28 points with one race remaining); eligible race winners (there are 13 this year, including Larson); and the points leaders among eligible non-winners (Hamlin and Kevin Harvick accumulated enough points to clinch spots despite not winning a race).
The RCR duo will need certain types of help if they don’t win Saturday. They’ll need a win from one of the playoff drivers or a driver who isn’t eligible for the playoffs. Ten drivers entered in Saturday’s race fit the latter category: Justin Haley, BJ McLeod, Cody Ware, Garrett Smithley, Quin Houff, Josh Bilicki, Joey Gase, Kaz Grala, Landon Cassill and David Starr.
If a playoff driver or an ineligible driver wins, then Reddick would clinch a berth with 31 points Saturday, per NASCAR.com. If Reddick doesn’t get to 31, then Dillon would need to outscore Reddick by at least 25 points, the gap between the drivers entering Daytona.
How are NASCAR driver points awarded per race?
Drivers primarily earn points based on where they finish in each race. The race winner earns 40 points and the last-place driver receives one point.
Drivers can also earn points based on their finish in the first two or three stages of a race. The top 10 finishers in each stage receive points; the stage winner receives 10 points, down to the 10th-place driver receiving one point. These points are added to the points that drivers earn with their race finish.
Points are accumulated over the course of the 26-race regular season. The driver with the most points after those 26 races is the regular-season champion.
NASCAR then resets the point totals for the playoffs. Each playoff driver starts with a base of 2,000 points. NASCAR then adds points for the regular-season championship (15 points), race wins (five points each), stage wins (one point each) and second through 10th place in the regular-season points standings (a sliding scale down to one point for 10th).
An example of how points are awarded: The current points leader, Kyle Larson, is entering the Daytona race with 2,052 projected playoff points: 2,000 for making the playoffs, 15 for winning the regular-season points title, 25 for his five race wins and 12 for his 12 stage wins. He is the projected top seed in the playoffs.