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Coke Zero 400 Preview: Fourth of July Fireworks

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The schedule holds some more prime time NASCAR action under the lights this week. We travel back to where the season started this weekend at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400. The second Daytona race of the season is held July 4th week every year. Unlike the Daytona 500, the Sprint Cup Series races under the lights for this dramatic and entertaining prime-time racing event. This will be the third restrictor-plate race of the 2012 season, so we should now begin to see some trends forming. With the super speedway rule changes of the new season still in effect, the pack racing that we saw at Daytona and Talladega earlier this year will be still be the standard. We should be in for another thrilling ride this Saturday night. The 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season holds the season mark for lead changes in a race with 34. So, despite the pack racing, we still have lots of lead changes and parity in these restrictor-plate races. However, the 19 cars that DNF'd at Talladega is approaching half the 43-car field. So we have to be mindful of the multi-car crashes that the pack racing produces and the luck factor that is associated with this style of racing. We should be in for that same style of fireworks in the Coke Zero 400 this weekend. Considering that this year's Daytona 500 was rain-delayed and raced on a Monday night, we can even look back on that data with a good eye for performance this weekend.

Since this is the second race of the season at DIS, we can look back to February's Daytona 500 and even the race at Talladega this spring for some indications on which teams are running at top speed on the restrictor-plate tracks. This information will for the foundation of our picks for this week's race. We'll also pay close attention to the historical data at Daytona International Speedway. While average finish position is not always a good statistic to rely on at restrictor-plate tracks, the loop stats will illustrate the teams that run up front and dominate at Daytona on a regular basis. The data shown below covers the last seven years or 15 races at Daytona International Speedway.


DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Kyle Busch17.62,098722751,93297.5
Tony Stewart14.31,515665261,76097.1
Kurt Busch15.51,927582231,69391.4
Matt Kenseth14.31,816701101,65689.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.31,910651201,67488.0
Jeff Gordon20.11,665521501,54887.9
Clint Bowyer14.81,558551491,22987.4
Kevin Harvick15.21,625701001,40086.1
Jeff Burton18.51,91256781,54986.0
Jimmie Johnson22.11,68032331,61383.5
Denny Hamlin20.71,296611841,14683.5
Carl Edwards17.32,0425641,51283.1
Ryan Newman21.31,60358961,40681.7
Kasey Kahne15.91,80764271,36181.6
Martin Truex Jr.21.51,70554601,32679.4
Jamie McMurray21.91,90947181,38079.1
Mark Martin19.81,51642791,36078.5
Joey Logano20.992217357477.4
David Ragan17.71,212282484175.7
Greg Biffle21.61,29164821,20275.4

Roush Fenway Racing star Matt Kenseth won this year's Daytona 500. The victory made him a two-time winner of the Great American Race and now a very respected super speedway driver around the garage area. Kenseth's historical stats and loop stats at the Florida tri-oval have only gotten better as his career has worn on. In this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 17 Ford narrowly missed victory lane and picked up the runner-up finish further bolstering Kenseth's recent restrictor-plate resume. When the series traveled to Talladega in early May it was a total free-for-all, but Kenseth managed to lead the most laps with 73 and finish a brilliant third. Brad Keselowski foiled Kenseth's hopes for that win, and picked up his second career Talladega victory. We'll need to keep a watchful eye on the driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge as he could be a spoiler again this Saturday night. While he didn't win either race, Kenseth's teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, Greg Biffle, also had a strong presence in the two super speedway races earlier this season. Biffle led 44 laps in the Daytona 500 and finished a powerful third, and he led 15 laps at Talladega before finishing fifth. The driver of the No. 16 Ford will almost certainly be in the mix with the leaders again this weekend. Aside from the Roush and Penske angles on this event, we'll need to keep a look out for Tony Stewart. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion is a three-time winner of this Daytona night race and he's riding a huge wave of momentum into this weekend. Stewart has the experience to easily walk away with a fourth Daytona victory in the Coke Zero 400. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2012 Daytona 500 and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Matt Kenseth -
The Daytona 500 winner finds himself solidly atop the contenders list this week. Kenseth's recent work on plate tracks is just amazingly good. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has had a great season, and he leads the championship standings entering this weekend. His last four restrictor-plate races have resulted in 2nd-, 18th-, 1st- and 3rd-place finishes. Kenseth has led over 150 laps during this four-race span, so we fully expect to see him racing up front and beating doors with the leaders at Daytona this Saturday night.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart has been scrambling hard to get back into race-winning and championship-contending form. It's almost improbable that he has no victories in the last month considering how good his cars have been. Stewart loves this summer race at Daytona, and he has won the 2005, 2006 and 2009 installments of this event. During his career Smoke has led well over 600 laps at Daytona International Speedway and picked up a dozen Top-10 finishes. The restrictor-plate racing program of the No. 14 team has been a little off this season, but we feel that will change in the Coke Zero 400.

Greg Biffle -
The veteran Roush Fenway Racing driver enters this race waste deep in the hunt for this season's championship. We're 17 races into this season and Biffle is ranked fourth in the championship standings entering this week. He has been equally as powerful on the super speedways this season to his teammate Kenseth. Biffle has 59 laps led and two Top-5 finishes to show for at both Daytona and Talladega this season. The driver of the No. 16 Ford won this event in his rookie season of 2003, so he knows what it takes to win on this prime-time racing stage.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
We've been redefining our opinions of Earnhardt in this excellent season that he's been putting together. This includes his revival of performance on the plate tracks. Earnhardt finished runner-up in this season's Daytona 500 and that made for his third Top-5 finish in the last five Daytona races. The NASCAR icon led 10 laps and finished a solid ninth at Talladega in May, so he's racing with the leaders at the end stages of races on these huge ovals. We expect to see more excellence on the track this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Kevin Harvick -
For whatever reasons the No. 29 Chevrolet team is just a bit better than most everyone else on these super speedways. Harvick has three Top 10s in the last five races on restrictor-plate tracks, and 39 laps led to go along with those finishes. That includes his pair of seventh-place finishes in the last two Daytona races. He led 16 laps and was a fixture at the front of the field in last year's Coke Zero 400. When the laps are winding down, everyone is jockeying to be a drafting partner with this Richard Childress Racing veteran driver.

Jeff Burton -
The veteran driver has enviable career numbers racing at Daytona International Speedway. Burton has 10 career Top-10 finishes at the historic speedway and he even won this event in 2000. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet saw his plate track stats swoon during the tandem draft seasons we've had recently, but he has responded well to the return of pack racing at the super speedways. Burton's finishes of 2nd-, 5th- and 10th-place in the last three restrictor-plate events show just how much this style of racing plays to his strengths. Burton should quietly sneak into the Top 10 again in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is coming off his third victory of the season this past weekend at Kentucky Speedway. That was his first win since pulling into victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway back in May. Keselowski has yet to really make his mark on the oval at Daytona, but his two Talladega wins speak volumes of his drafting ability and super speedway racing skills. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has a pair of Top 5s in his last three super speedway races, so it's clear he'll be looking for some redemption for his Daytona 500 crash this weekend.

Clint Bowyer -
In recent seasons Bowyer has become one of the most consistent drivers on the restrictor-plate tracks. He lacks the victories to be considered the most dominant driver on these ovals, but his past efforts for owner Richard Childress and new owner Michael Waltrip are hard to ignore. In just his last five restrictor-plate track starts alone, Bowyer has led 66 laps and has one victory and one runner-up finish to his credit. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota finished 11th and sixth in this season's two plate track events, so expect to see a hungry Bowyer show up at Daytona on Saturday night.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Daytona who can provide a solid finish

Kyle Busch -
It's hard to believe that one-time Daytona winner Busch is in our sleepers list week. However, when one looks closely at his recent history on these super speedway ovals, we see excellent loop scoring stats but offset by some risk. Busch's recent visits to the Florida oval are very encouraging. He picked up eighth- and fifth-place finishes here last season, but finished an uninspiring 17th in this season's Daytona 500. It's Busch's runner-up finish at Talladega this spring that has us feeling optimistic for this visit to Daytona. Just like a big league slugger in baseball, Busch has homerun potential on these tracks, but he also carries a noteworthy strikeout risk.

Kasey Kahne -
Despite finishing 29th in this season's Daytona 500, we have to go with the “body of work” theme with Kahne this weekend. That poor 500 finish is like an island in a vast ocean. Outside of his crash and DNF in the Great American Race, The Hendrick Motorsports star has three Top 10s in his last four super speedway starts. Kahne led 19 laps and finished a brilliant fourth in this event one year ago, and he most recently finished fourth after leading 11 laps at Talladega Superspeedway this spring. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has this style of racing pegged right now.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The Penske Racing driver enters this event on a two-race Top 10 streak with some clear chemistry starting to emerge on the No. 22 team. Allmendinger is forming a bond with new crew chief Todd Gordon and the results are starting to show. The No. 22 Dodge was quite fast this spring at Talladega as evidenced by Allmendinger's outside pole qualifying effort and respectable 15th-place finish in the Aaron's 499. Now that this team is getting some traction, we have some high expectations for the Coke Zero 400. Allmendinger had Daytona finishes of 10th and 11th last year before moving to Penske, so it's clear that he know how to race these super speedway type ovals.

Paul Menard -
Menard has 10 career starts at Daytona International Speedway, and he's really come of age recently at this track. The young Richard Childress Racing driver is showing improvement at this huge oval as evidenced by his three straight Top-10 finishes here. Menard's sixth-place finish in this season's Daytona 500 was a career-best effort at the facility. He also posted a respectable 17th-place effort in May at Talladega Superspeedway. The No. 27 team's restrictor-plate racing program appears to be in good shape, and Menard is only improving each time he visits these super speedway ovals.

Trevor Bayne -
The darling of last season's Daytona 500 is back at the scene of the crime this weekend, and hopes to recapture lightning in a bottle with another strong performance at the historic race track. While a victory may not be likely, don't underestimate Bayne and this No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team. The young driver has a Top 10 and a Top 15 in two of his last three restrictor-plate track starts, and he's proving that the Daytona 500 win last season was no fluke. There's little doubt that Bayne will have a fast race car this weekend at Daytona, and we're certain he knows what to do with it.

David Ragan -
A lot has changed for Ragan this season in moving from super-stable Roush Fenway Racing to the smaller Front Row Motorsports. However, one thing seems to have remained consistent, his super speedway performance. Ragan led 15 laps and won this event one year ago. Unfortunately his Daytona 500 ended in misery this February with an early crash and DNF. However, he raced at Talladega this spring and redeemed himself with a solid seventh-place finish in the No. 34 FRM Ford. Ragan carries Top 10 potential at this oval and that makes him a valuable commodity in deeper leagues and weekly lineup leagues.

David Gilliland -
Gilliland is the other Front Row Motorsports driver you should consider rolling in weekly lineup leagues this week. The driver of the No. 38 Ford is not quite as good as his teammate Ragan on these super speedways, but he's quite respectable and can generally stay out of the multi-car crashes. Gilliland has finishes of 23rd- and 13th-place this season at Daytona and Talladega, and his last six restrictor-plate starts have netted a very respectable 14.3 average finish and more importantly zero DNF's. Don't expect anything spectacular, but you should see Gilliland keep the wheels on it and finish in the Top 20 on Saturday night.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Carl Edwards -
We're starting to sense some tension and some friction on the No. 99 Ford team. Edwards is supposed to be a championship contender, but his recent performances have shown pure struggles just to challenge the Top 10 each week. Edwards did finish eighth in the Daytona 500, but two of his last four super speedway starts have resulted in finishes outside the Top 30. The Roush Fenway star just seems to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the multi-car crashes occur on these ovals. It's best to keep him benched this weekend if possible.

Jeff Gordon -
The Hendrick Motorsports star's recent uptrend in performance will get a real test this weekend at Daytona. Gordon carries a three-race Top 10 streak into this Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. However, his recent super speedway stats speak volumes for his struggles on these huge ovals. The six-time Daytona winner's last three super speedway starts have resulted in finishes outside the Top 25 with two DNF's. Judging by his lack of laps led on these ovals of late we get the sense that Gordon is riding around back in traffic too much at Daytona and Talladega. That squarely put the crosshairs of chaotic pack racing on one's back.

Kurt Busch -
The Phoenix Racing veteran has enviable career numbers racing on the plate tracks. Busch cracks the Top 5 at Daytona and a stunning 44 percent rate and the Top 10 at an impressive 52 percent rate. However, recent seasons have seen the veteran driver's number fall off at these facilities and even more so since moving into the No. 51 Chevrolet. Busch's last three super speedway outings have seen him lead a paltry 5 laps and collect two finishes outside the Top 30. We don't expect this trend to change in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver became noteworthy but for all the wrong reasons in this season's Daytona 500. Montoya's bizarre mechanical failure and caution lap crash into the jet dryer and subsequent four-alarm blaze won't be soon forgotten by legions of NASCAR fans. It turns out that this was just the latest in a series of disappointments on the big ovals. Montoya has just one Top 10 in the last five super speedway races. Compare that to the two DNF's and three finishes outside the Top 30 during this same span. The No. 42 team has been struggling on the big ovals of Daytona and Talladega, so it's best to steer clear of this team this weekend.
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