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Ed Hardin's Hard ’n Fast: No firecrackers, but plenty of drama on tap at Daytona

Ed Hardin's Hard ’n Fast: No firecrackers, but plenty of drama on tap at Daytona

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They’ll return to Daytona one more time Saturday night to run the 400, the ghost of the Firecracker, a race that has its own quirky history and is poised to make or break the season of some of the top drivers in the sport.

This may or may not be the last time Jimmie Johnson races at Daytona. It could also make or break his chances of making the playoffs in what he still says will be his final season in NASCAR.

He’ll have company.

Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Johnson are in a three-way race for the final spot in the playoffs in the regular-season finale. This is exactly what NASCAR had in mind when it moved the 400 from its traditional July 4 weekend to the end of the regular-season schedule.

It never anticipated Johnson would be in danger of missing the cut though.

This race sometimes delivers odd outcomes. The last three winners were Ricky Stenhouse, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

The scenario is simple for DiBenedetto, who needs 47 points to clinch one of the 16 berths in the playoffs, and Byron, who needs 51. Johnson would need to leapfrog one or both and hope there’s not a first-time winner, which is an automatic qualifier for the playoffs.

Johnson hasn’t won since 2017.

A lot of people are pulling for him, though he said last week after Dover that he’s “not gone forever.” No one really knows what that means, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he weren’t in a car in February when they run the Daytona 500.

First things first.

He has to survive the strangest race on tour, a race that has produced winners such as Aric Almirola, David Ragan, Greg Biffle, Jimmy Spencer and Greg Sacks in the modern era of racing. In 1966, Sam McQuagg won his only career race in the 400.

There was no playoff in those days, and the Firecracker 400 was NASCAR’s vacation week, when the race was always run on the Fourth of July, no matter which day of the week it fell on. Drivers would bring their families and spend the week at the beach. The race was run in the morning, and by the end of the week everybody was sunburned and ready to go home.

Those days are over. It’s one of the saddest of traditions to pass.

This is the end of one of the strangest regular seasons ever in racing and the beginning of a new era as NASCAR continues to tinker with the schedule and Daytona itself, introducing the road course earlier this month, which will host the Clash next year.

All that’s left for this year is for the 48 to drive to victory. It would be a fitting finish and would allow Johnson to drive into the playoffs before riding into the sunset.

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