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Coke Zero 400 Preview: Back to Daytona

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.

We go back to racing under the lights this week. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels 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 racing event. This will be the third restrictor-plate race of the 2014 season, so we should now begin to see some trends forming on these larger ovals. With the new aero-rules package being used for the second time this season at Daytona, we hope to see some the same racing that made the Daytona 500 a competitive and exciting affair. If the drivers can duplicate the action we saw in May at Talladega, we should be in for a 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 48. That's not too far off what we saw in the Daytona 500 which was 42. So, despite the pack racing that superspeedways create, we still have lots of lead changes and parity in these restrictor-plate races. However, we also need to remember the 12 cars that DNF'd at Talladega is also a season high mark, and really illustrates the luck side of the equation in this style of racing too. 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. The racing at Daytona at night always introduces a new dynamic to this style of racing. While there are many parallels we'll be able to draw from the Daytona 500, we fully expect the action in Saturday night's race to have its own unique characteristics.

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 lead laps, make passes and dominate at Daytona on a regular basis. The data shown below covers the last nine years or 19 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch18.62,743843292,41397.1
Matt Kenseth15.42,453772862,28892.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.42,710851742,24592.0
Tony Stewart15.41,689765481,89890.0
Jimmie Johnson19.72,372431592,19489.0
Kurt Busch17.02,585702382,07288.9
Jeff Gordon19.62,333591812,03088.0
Denny Hamlin20.41,876792531,62485.5
Clint Bowyer16.41,863771501,50583.5
Jeff Burton18.12,07169791,69283.1
Kevin Harvick16.31,990871001,63982.4
Carl Edwards18.12,54972121,81582.1
Kasey Kahne18.12,27671291,73681.4
Joey Logano20.01,58834795281.3
Ryan Newman19.01,86268991,59380.7
Greg Biffle19.81,877771251,73479.9
Jamie McMurray20.72,57154281,72279.0
Brad Keselowski20.21,434403785577.5
Brian Vickers20.11,362493493677.2
Martin Truex Jr.23.72,13664621,65076.2

Hendrick Motorsports star Dale Earnhardt Jr. won this year's Daytona 500. The victory made him a two-time winner of the Great American Race and snapped a 10-year winless drought for the NASCAR icon and Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt's historical stats and loop stats on superspeedways have been nothing short of stellar over the years. Luck has always been his Achilles' heel at Daytona, but he seemed to rise above it with his Daytona 500 win in February. When the series traveled to Talladega in early May it was a total free-for-all, but Earnhardt managed to lead the second-most laps with 26. However, the hesitancy to move forward late in the race cost the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet dearly. Earnhardt ended up finishing a disappointing 26th in the Aaron's 499. Denny Hamlin, in thrilling fashion, foiled Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle's hopes for that win, and picked up his first career restrictor-plate victory in his eight seasons of Sprint Cup racing. We'll need to keep a watchful eye on the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as he could be a giant-killer again this Saturday night. Not much has gone right for this driver and team in 2014, but they've had excellent speed on the superspeedways. While he didn't win either race, Earnhardt's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson, also had a strong presence in the two superspeedway races earlier this season. Johnson led 15 laps in the Daytona 500 and he finished a powerful fifth after a late charge at leader Earnhardt. Given that the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is a three-time winner at DIS, we have to give him his due respect in this one. Aside from the Chevrolet and Toyota angles on this event, we'll need to keep a look out for the Ford teams of Roush Fenway Racing. Greg Biffle has been the strongest driver for this stable the last year on the restrictor-plate tracks. The driver of the No. 16 Ford is a one-time Daytona winner, and he's led a whopping 66 laps in the new superspeedway rules package this season between the Daytona and Talladega events. Biffle has the experience to easily walk away with a second-career Daytona victory. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2014 Daytona 500 and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your fantasy racing league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Our last Daytona winner tops the contenders list this week. The now three-time Daytona winner has a lot to prove in this Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. Earnhardt snapped a major dry spell at this track with his win in February's Great American Race. The fact that he has a pair of runner-up finishes to go with that win in the last five Daytona starts shows his skill on these large ovals. Restrictor-plate racing requires a lot of skill and a lot of luck, and Earnhardt is one of the rare few who "make" their own luck in this style of racing. His 9.3 average finish in the last six Sprint Cup superspeedway races is second only to Jimmie Johnson.

Jimmie Johnson -
The three-time Daytona winner and winner of last year's Daytona 500 comes back to Daytona Beach on a quest this weekend. Johnson was denied victory lane in this February's Daytona 500, but he still led 15 laps and finished a brilliant fifth. Unfinished business will be the phrase on the minds of the No. 48 Chevrolet team. Johnson swept both races at this track in 2013, and that shows the skill and experience of the reigning Sprint Cup champion at this 2.5-mile oval. With close to 200 laps led in the last six restrictor-plate races, we're used to seeing the Hendrick Motorsports star up front on these ovals.

Brad Keselowski -
Coming off the big victory at Kentucky Speedway, it would be a mistake to leave Keselowski off the contenders list this week. The Penske Racing star is a proven restrictor-plate racer, and has the pedigree to back that fact up. Keselowski is a two-time winner at the big oval in Talladega, and has shown the deft ability to avoid the "big one" during go time. While he's never tasted the thrill of victory at Daytona, the driver of the No. 2 Ford did lead 13 laps and finish a career-best third in this season's Daytona 500. Keselowski should be knocking on the door of victory lane again this Saturday night at DIS.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is in great need of a good run after a couple tough weeks. Daytona will provide a morale boost, and hopefully a points boost to the No. 16 Ford team. But more than that, Biffle has been a top performer the last couple seasons on these huge ovals. Four of his last seven races at Daytona and Talladega have netted the veteran Top-10 finishes. He led 58 laps and finished a surprising runner-up in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway in May. The last time we were in Daytona, Biffle started 25th on the grid, led 8 laps and finished a respectable eighth in the Great American Race. We expect an even better performance in the Coke Zero 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Kevin Harvick -
The veteran RCR driver has enviable career numbers racing at Daytona International Speedway. Harvick has two career victories and 11 Top-10 finishes at the historic speedway in Florida. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet saw his plate track stats swoon during the tandem draft seasons we've had in the recent past, but he has responded well to the return of pack racing at the superspeedways. Harvick has 13th- and seventh-place finishes in his two starts on restrictor-plate tracks this season. He also has a pair of Top 10s in his last four superspeedway starts. That 50-percent rate is about as good as it gets on these high risk ovals.

Matt Kenseth -
The two-time Daytona 500 winner finds himself in the solid plays list this week. Kenseth's recent work on restrictor-plate tracks has been good, just not excellent. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has had a good season, but he's still looking for his first win of 2014. So motivation won't be a problem when we fire up the engines in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. His last five restrictor-plate races have resulted in two Top-10 finishes and a whopping 176 laps led. The Joe Gibbs Racing star started third on the grid in this season's Daytona 500 and finished sixth after 200 laps of action at the 2.5-mile speedway.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star has had his share of good finishes over the years on the larger ovals. Bowyer has strung together two victories and 16 Top-10 finishes between the ovals of Daytona and Talladega. That gives him the third-best average finish among active drivers on these ovals at 15.7. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota comes to this Coke Zero 400 with three Top-10 finishes in the last four superspeedway events. That includes a brilliant third-place performance at Talladega earlier this spring. Bowyer finished fourth in this race one year ago, and that's been a good indicator of his normal Daytona performance.

Denny Hamlin -
Make no mistake, it's been a rough season for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin does have the Talladega victory, but his five Top-10 finishes add up to a sub-par 18th-place ranking in the driver standings coming to Daytona this week. The good news is this could be where it all turns around for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Hamlin has been stellar and has had great speed on these large ovals all the way back to Speedweeks at Daytona to start the year. He won the Sprint Unlimited, his Gatorade Duel, finished second in the Daytona 500 and won the Aaron's 499 at Talladega. That's about as spotless as it gets on the superspeedway circuit.

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

Joey Logano -
Those young Penske Racing driver is carving out another fantastic season in the No. 22 Ford. Logano rides into Daytona weekend seventh in the overall driver standings, and with two victories to this point in the season. The good racing should continue for Logano this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. He sports some good finishing stats at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. He's cracked the Top 10 in three of his last six Daytona races, and he's often seen racing with the leaders at the series' two monster ovals. Logano is poised to keep his Top 10 ways intact in the Coke Zero 400.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray has displayed great talent on the restrictor-plate tracks over the years. He's a four-time winner between Daytona and Talladega, and he's the 2010 Daytona 500 winner. These have not happened by accident. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has won as recently as late last season at Talladega in the Camping World RV Sales 500. The EGR veteran has 14th- and seventh-place finishes in his last two Daytona starts. McMurray led 10 laps and finished a respectable sixth in the Sprint Unlimited to kick off the season at Daytona. All indicators point to a Top-15 finish in Saturday night's 400-mile race.

Paul Menard -
With the departure of Kevin Harvick, Menard has been leading the way for Richard Childress Racing this season. He enters Daytona a career-best 11th in the Chase Standings and on pace to hit career marks for Top-5 and Top-10 finishes in 2014. Menard should stay on his path to success even though Daytona is high-stakes racing. The veteran driver has 39 laps led and a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three superspeedway starts. Menard has only three career Daytona Top 10s but they've all come since the 2011 season. That shows his dramatic improvement in racing in the draft in recent seasons.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran is running well coming to Daytona International Speedway. Newman is fresh off a season-best third-place finish at Kentucky Speedway this past weekend. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet will be riding a wave of momentum coming into the Coke Zero 400. His superspeedway work has been flawless of late. Three of his last six starts on these big ovals have netted Top-10 finishes. That includes a steady 10th-place finish in this race one year ago. Newman should be a driver to keep an eye on at Daytona this Saturday night.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The young driver has had an up-and-down campaign to this point in 2014. Stenhouse enters Daytona weekend 27th in the championship standings, and looking for his fourth Top-10 finish of the season. That's disappointing but not devastating. The driver of the No. 6 Ford has generally been a Top-15 finisher most weeks. The restrictor-plate tracks have been an exceptional part of his game since becoming a Sprint Cup Series driver. Stenhouse has claimed three Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes in his six career starts at Daytona and Talladega. The young driver keeps his nose out of trouble and guides his car through the turmoil to good finishes. That trend should continue in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Michael Waltrip -
The flamboyant owner/driver of the No. 66 Toyota climbs back behind the wheel this weekend for some more superspeedway action. Waltrip has been reduced to just racing these restrictor-plate races later in his career, but don't let that fool you. The old guy is still razor sharp on these style ovals. Waltrip has two Top-10 finishes in his last four starts at Daytona International Speedway. He is a three-time Daytona winner and he finished fifth in this event one year ago. We have high expectations for this Toyota driver this weekend.

Casey Mears -
The Germain Racing veteran is a good play deep off your bench or in deeper leagues this Saturday night. Mears has been steady the last year plus on the huge ovals. His last four finishes between Daytona and Talladega dating back to this race one year ago are efforts of ninth-, 27th-, 10th- and 14th-place. Those two Top 10s and three Top 15s are about as good as it gets on these style tracks. It shows that Mears has a nose for the openings and a knack for avoiding the trouble. The driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet has four career Top-10 finishes at Daytona, and two of those have come in the last two races at the historic track.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Tony Stewart -
No one has won this Daytona night race more than Smoke. That's why it's almost improbable that the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet lands in the slow down list this week. In the past, Stewart has been money when the light flipped on at Daytona International Speedway. He won this event four times between 2005 and 2012. However, the three-time champion has been pulling up lame of late in these restrictor-plate races. Stewart's last six starts between Daytona and Talladega have netted one Top-5 finish and five finishes outside the Top-25. He's led no laps over this six-race span. While Stewart has the potential to flip the switch "on" Saturday night, the numbers are very discouraging entering this event.

Jeff Gordon -
The Hendrick Motorsports star's high level of performance this season will get a real test this weekend at Daytona. Gordon carries a four-race Top-10 streak and the championship standings lead into this Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. However, his recent superspeedway stats speak volumes for his struggles on these huge ovals. The six-time Daytona winner's last six superspeedway starts have resulted in three finishes outside the Top 20 with one DNF. 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 puts the crosshairs of chaotic pack racing on one's back.

Kurt Busch -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran has enviable career numbers racing on the plate tracks. Busch cracks the Top 5 at Daytona and a stunning 37-percent rate and the Top 10 at an impressive 48-percent rate. However, recent seasons have seen the veteran driver's number fall off at these facilities and even more so since leaving Penske Racing. Busch's last five Daytona outings have seen him lead only 15 laps and collect four finishes outside the Top 20. Busch's change of scenery to Stewart Haas Racing has proven to be a real complication this season, so we don't expect this trend line to break Saturday night at DIS.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has been running well of late, and that's a good sign coming to Daytona. However, Kahne's recent record on this oval and the sister oval in Talladega are concerning. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has only one Top-10 finish in his last six starts between these two facilities. The lone Top 10 came at Talladgea this spring. His effort in the Great American Race ended in a disappointing 31st-place finish in our earlier Daytona event. Kahne's 33-percent Top-10 rate at this 2.5-mile oval ranks it among his worst tracks in the Sprint Cup Series.