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Decision time at Daytona: Last playoff berth, regular-season crown still at stake in finale

The potential playoff outcomes for Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon ripple with mathematical possibilities for Saturday’s regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. For everyone else with a sliver of postseason eligibility within reach, the marching orders are simple — win or else.

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The field of 16 championship hopefuls will be set after Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). Only one playoff berth remains available, and Reddick is currently the last driver in on the provisional postseason grid. He’s 25 points ahead of Dillon — the first driver out as things stand with 25 of 26 regular-season races in the books.

Dillon crashed out of Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway, swept into the wall after contact with Brad Keselowski, but he made a modest three-point gain on Reddick in the standings based on his strong showing at the stage finishes. Reddick’s opportunity to build a bigger bank of points fizzled with a flat tire and spinout with six laps left.

“In the closing laps, I made it four-wide on the bottom, but I lost momentum, slid up on the track and lost a ton of positions,” said Reddick, who finished 29th in the FireKeepers Casino 400. “We avoided damage there, but unfortunately with less than 10 laps to go, my right-rear tire was cut down and I spun. We were forced to pit under green for four tires and that cost us a solid finish. There is one race left at Daytona and we will give it everything we have as a team to get our No. 8 Chevrolet into the NASCAR Playoffs.”

Points matter for the RCR bubble duo, but 13 other drivers can convert on a playoff spot by winning the regular-season finale. A first-time winner from among that baker’s dozen would knock both Reddick and Dillon out.

Matt DiBenedetto is the top-ranked among those outsiders in the standings. The Wood Brothers Racing driver squeezed his way into the first playoff appearance of his career by a scant six points last year, but this season, only a checkered flag will do.

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At the other end of the standings, the pursuit of the regular season championship will be decided in Daytona. Points leader Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin have locked up postseason berths, but are still vying for the 15-playoff-point premium that comes with that title. Larson gained six points on Hamlin at Michigan to provide him with a 28-point edge atop the standings, heading to the finale.

“Yeah, I mean, I’m glad I gained some points on him today,” Larson said after Sunday’s third-place finish. “But Daytona is Daytona. I don’t typically see the checkered flag I feel like too often there. We’ll see. But glad to go in there with 28 points. If we could get a couple good stages there at Daytona, I would feel much better about it.”

As Larson referenced, the 2.5-mile Florida superspeedway has not traditionally been his strong suit. He’s yet to post a top-five finish in 14 career starts there. In contrast, Hamlin has traditionally been a Daytona powerhouse, claiming three wins in the season-opening 500 and leading multiple laps in his last five Daytona starts.

“We’ll just try to get every point that we can and go for the win,” Hamlin said after placing fifth at Michigan. “We’ll do everything we can. The FedEx Camry team has been strong all year long. We just can’t get a caution right, can’t get a restart right – just little tiny things right to get a win. But we’re in the hunt every week and that’s all we can ask for.”