Higher stakes at Daytona mean 'crazy things will happen'

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Kevin Harvick leads the field to start the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Racing at Daytona International Speedway always comes with a hefty dose of drama. Bad breaks. Close calls. Harrowing crashes. Overtime affairs. Last-lap heroics. Underdog stories.

NASCAR’s premier Cup Series could have all the above during its regular-season finale Saturday night.

The final three playoff spots are up for grabs as stock car racing returns to the high-banked superspeedway two weeks after running the road course. Nearly half the field is looking to clinch a postseason berth with a victory, including seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. The high stakes could make for a 400-mile, white-knuckle ride at close to 200 mph.

“A lot of people are desperate,” said Team Penske driver Joey Logano, who's already locked into the playoffs. “Crazy things will happen.”

That’s exactly what NASCAR envisioned when it moved Daytona’s summertime extravaganza to the regular-season finale. Cup races at Daytona already were considered wild-card events in which just about anyone could end up in victory lane. Now, there’s even more on the line.

Especially for Johnson, who is retiring as a full-time driver at the end of the season. He likely would be safely in the predicted playoff field had he not missed a race because he tested positive for COVID-19 and had a second-place finish thrown out after his car failed inspection.

“We’ll see how it plays out. It could be a storybook ending for us, which would be amazing, and I know the fans would really appreciate that and enjoy it,” Johnson said. “We all understand the story lines. I’m excited. I’m ready to go. I’m not one to spend too much time to get overly sentimental.”

Johnson’s winless drought is at 119 races, dating to June 2017. He’s won three times at Daytona, with his last one coming in 2013.