A wild and exciting night was expected for the July 4th weekend classic at Daytona International Speedway. The fireworks on the track started in practice and then officially got underway when the green flag dropped.
News was made Friday night as Dale Earnhardt Jr., with partnership from Richard Childress, Teresa Earnhardt and Wrangler, drove a yellow and blue No. 3 Wrangler car to Daytona's Victory Circle in the Nationwide Series. It was a perfect rendition of a Hollywood script that is becoming familiar at the track, as Dale Jr. has picked up a few wins that have evoked strong sentiments among competitors and fans of his father. This particular win was a direct tribute to his father, running his old colors and number, and NASCAR could not have fabricated a better finish if they had tried.
Saturday's race was delayed by rain, which produced a green track once the green flag flew. Tires went quickly for most cars and the handling was gone within the first 10 laps of most fuel runs. Any driver who wanted to maintain handling needed to take four tires every stop.
Long green-flag runs marked the opening half of the race, while crashes and contact punctuated the second half. Kevin Harvick and the Richard Childress Racing cars had been strong throughout the running, but really came alive when they worked together at the finish. It was Harvick, who had been up front all night, who finished first after a green-white-checkered finish.
Kevin Harvick – Harvick won a crazy race by staying in the top 15 runners for nearly the entire race and leading more laps than any other driver in the field. By the time the caution flags started flying near the end of full distance, Harvick was really turning on. He moved through traffic swiftly and was in the top five for the closing battles. Harvick's car never truly suffered the problems that other competitors seemed to have, and all of the Richard Childress cars worked really well together to work their way forward and stay there. The points leader should also be a solid fantasy option next week in Chicago. His average finish in the last five races there is 9.8.
Kurt Busch – Busch has demonstrated his restrictor plate racing skills in the past, and did so again in Saturday's Coke Zero 400. He led quite a few laps and admitted that the changes the team made after the final practice were what gave him a decent car in the early going. Unfortunately, he was caught in a number of the late incidents and kept getting forced back in the field. His determination and strong car allowed him to push his way back forward, though, and finished an impressive seventh. Busch also has a strong Chicagoland Speedway record. His average finish at the track is 17.2 in nine career starts with five top-10 results.
Sam Hornish Jr. – Despite being knocked out of the race in the late going, Hornish had an impressive night. It was only the finish that was lacking. Hornish started near the rear of the field, but was shortly running with the leaders. He pushed Kevin Harvick to the lead before the race was even 30 laps old after starting 30th. After that, he led his first ever laps at the superspeedway and looked like he could win before a late accident. Hornish's best finish of the season was 11th at Pocono Raceway, and his average Chicagoland Speedway finish is 37.5. Hornish's strong car Saturday night should not be considered a turn in fortunes for the team. It would be wise for fantasy players to avoid selecting him next week.
Tony Stewart – Stewart very nearly had a great weekend. He was forced to start at the back of the field Saturday night, but worked on the settings until his car was one of the fastest in the field and running at the front. He fell back in the field, and was working his way forward again, when "the big one" happened and took him out along with the majority of the field. Saturday's run, and the races leading to it, demonstrate that Stewart is coming on strongly for the second half of the season, just like usual. Smoke has been awesome at Chicagoland. He can boast two wins and seven top-fives from nine career starts there. Look out for Stewart the rest of the season, he historically steps up his performances and he is doing it again in 2010.
Jeff Gordon – Saturday was a solid night for the No. 24 team. Gordon started the race strongly, in the front of the field, and stayed there throughout. He spent 136 laps in the top 15 and was leading in the closing laps before the Richard Childress Racing teammates steamrolled past him. The strong run put Gordon second in points, behind leader Harvick. It was also his ninth top-five finish of the season. The four-time champion's average Chicagoland finish from the last five races is 11.2. In total, Gordon has tallied one win, five top-fives and six top-10s in just nine starts at the track. Look for another solid points day as he works to stamp his ticket to the Chase.
Kasey Kahne – Kahne was a fairly quiet competitor throughout the running of the Coke Zero 400. He avoided most of the action, keeping his car intact, and ran at the front of the field for nearly the entire race. Kahne dodge crashing cars and pushed his way forward in the final laps to come home second, his fifth top-five of the season. Kahne is now 16th in points and has some work to do in order to make the Chase, but he is not giving up. He could make up some ground next week in Chicago. He finished third in the last race there, the 2009 LifeLock.com 400. He will have to work to overcome his average finish at the track though, 25.0 in six career starts.
A.J. Allmendinger – After a decent run in New Hampshire, Allmendinger was brought back to earth Saturday in Daytona. He was well off the pace, struggling with handling in the early running and was forced to pit early to make adjustments. He ran at speed shortly after that stop, but quickly faded as his handling went away again. Ultimately he spun coming off of turn four and bumped the inside wall, causing damage to the rear of his car. It was not the night that the 28-year-old hoped for, and the misfortune interrupted a run of seven races where the car finished in the top 15. Allmendinger could get back on that horse next weekend in Chicago, though. He has a pair of 13th-place results at the Midwest track, so we will be able to see if this team has truly discovered consistency with another top-15 run.
Kyle Busch – Busch was turned into the wall on the back straight when he had contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. Busch's day had started poorly already. His car was handling terribly in the early laps, which forced the No. 18 to pit early for chassis work. A caution flag saved Busch from falling a lap down, and he was able to catch up to the back of the field. At the time of the accident, Busch had worked his way into the lead. The Coke Zero 400 marked four races without a top-10 result for Busch, who prior to that streak had a run of eight straight top-10s. Busch has won at Chicagoland, and his average finish in five career starts is 12.8. He should be a solid play next week despite Saturday's disappointment.
Martin Truex Jr. – Truex had a fast car at Daytona. He was able to work his way through the field and was running near the front on the closing stages, hunting for a top finish. David Ragan lost control ahead of Truex and caught him in the accident, effectively ending his night. Truex had been looking at his first top-10 finish since Richmond International Raceway in early May, but instead saw his streak of finishes outside of the top-10 extended to eight. With just one top-10 from four career starts at Chicagoland, Truex probably wouldn't be the most reliable fantasy pick next weekend. His average finish at the track is 20.0.
Jamie McMurray – McMurray was caught in another driver's troubles in the late going of Saturday's race. He had been running quite strong after working his car to handle better, and looked like he might just sweep the two races at Daytona this season. The night ended in the garage with a lot of repair work to be done, though. McMurray holds just one top-10 result at Chicagoland Speedway, July of 2003, but hasn't even had a sniff of success there since. His average finish in the last five races there is 28.4. Fantasy owners beware, based on his statistics, McMurray is one to avoid next week.
Mark Martin – Martin was virtually a nonfactor throughout Saturday night's race. At one point, near the middle of the running, Martin had a chance to be at the front, but he quickly faded. Martin just couldn't make headway in the pack and that was ultimately his downfall. In the closing laps, Martin was squeezed when a car lost control ahead of him. He ended up with damage to the front and the rear of the car, with virtually no laps to make repairs. Martin hasn't been having a great season, but was still 11th in points before Daytona. Some good news is that he dominated last year's LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland, and his average finish is 12.6 in nine career starts there. Next week could be a good opportunity to take a gamble on Martin.