Coke Zero 400 Preview: Fourth of July Fireworks

Coke Zero 400 Preview: Fourth of July Fireworks

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We return to racing under the lights this week. The NASCAR Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy Cup Series races under the lights for this dramatic and entertaining racing event. This will be the third restrictor-plate race of the 2017 season, so we should now begin to see some trends forming on these larger ovals. With the same 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 featured 26 lead changes and was one of the most competitive events since the season-opener. The Daytona 500 also offered a season-high 37 lead changes, so we should be in for a hotly-contested race this weekend. Despite the pack racing that super speedways create, we still have lots of lead changes and parity in these restrictor-plate events. However, we also need to remember the 15 cars that DNF'd at Daytona is also a season high mark, and really illustrates the luck side of the equation in this style of racing too. So

We return to racing under the lights this week. The NASCAR Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy Cup Series races under the lights for this dramatic and entertaining racing event. This will be the third restrictor-plate race of the 2017 season, so we should now begin to see some trends forming on these larger ovals. With the same 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 featured 26 lead changes and was one of the most competitive events since the season-opener. The Daytona 500 also offered a season-high 37 lead changes, so we should be in for a hotly-contested race this weekend. Despite the pack racing that super speedways create, we still have lots of lead changes and parity in these restrictor-plate events. However, we also need to remember the 15 cars that DNF'd at Daytona 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 drivers that lead laps, make quality passes and dominate at Daytona on a regular basis. The data shown below covers the last 12 years or 25 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch18.43,313973822,89394.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.73,5221003252,91794.2
Kurt Busch15.23,563842752,66090.6
Denny Hamlin17.13,175913692,41689.7
Joey Logano16.22,74169601,68587.8
Jimmie Johnson20.33,433572582,81887.6
Matt Kenseth18.12,975943392,57486.8
Ryan Blaney18.595324248382.7
Kevin Harvick16.82,9291071512,19282.3
Kasey Kahne18.53,51477412,41481.9
Jamie McMurray21.83,89371522,38480.3
Brad Keselowski21.12,389581551,46479.6
Austin Dillon12.61,142341777379.4
Martin Truex Jr.22.12,99481682,24278.6
Clint Bowyer16.42,4191011531,83677.9
Ryan Newman19.22,122931011,76374.8
Paul Menard20.02,02166671,35672.7
Kyle Larson24.6898181653270.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.71,08745052068.5
David Ragan20.61,71953351,11166.0

Stewart Haas Racing star Kurt Busch won this year's Daytona 500. The victory made him a first-time winner of the Great American Race and also made him a first-time winner on restrictor-plate race tracks. Busch's historical stats and loop stats on super speedways have been great and consistent for years, but he's always been lacking that elusive victory. He now has that trophy, and is ready to line up some more in his trophy case. Luck has always been Busch's Achilles heel at Daytona, but he seemed to rise above it with his Daytona 500 victory in February. When the series traveled to Talladega in early May it was a total free-for-all, but Kyle Busch managed to lead the most laps with 48. His teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin, would also lead 43 laps and have Toyota in good position for the win. However, the quickly changing fortunes of superspeedway racing would not reward Gibbs drivers that day. Rather, it would be Roush Fenway Racing and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. that would pull the major upset in the closing laps and put Stenhouse in Monster Energy Cup Series victory lane for the first time. We'll need to keep a watchful eye on Stenhouse again this weekend as he could assert his prowess in super speedway racing again this Saturday night. The Gibbs Toyotas are also worth a long look as their horsepower seemed second-to-none for large portions of the Talladega race.

While he didn't win either race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be looking to make his mark this Saturday night. His Daytona and Talladega outings this season have been forgettable, but he'll be racing for the last time at Daytona as he continues his farewell tour. He'll be out for redemption this weekend. Given that the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is a four-time winner at DIS, we have to give him his due respect in this one. Earnhardt won this event in 2015 in a dominant performance, and you know that he and the team will give their very best this weekend. Aside from these storylines, Brad Keselowski has been the best superspeedway performer over the last couple seasons, although you wouldn't have known it from his poor Daytona 500 performance. You can guarantee the driver of the No. 2 Ford will be fast and will be hungry to win in the Coke Zero 400. Keselowski should make his presence felt from the drop of the green flag. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2017 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

Brad Keselowski -
Coming off a surprisingly strong performance at the Sonoma road course, 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 four-time winner at the big oval in Talladega, and has shown the deft ability to avoid the "big one" during go time. He claimed his first Daytona win in this July event one year ago. The driver of the No. 2 Ford led 115 laps that evening and ran away with the victory. Keselowski led 31 laps this spring at Talladega before finally finishing seventh. He's recently been the class of the field on the two superspeedway ovals, so he'll be a top threat to win in Saturday night's 400-mile thriller.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has been consistently fast at both Daytona and Talladega dating back to last season. He's led a combined 115 laps between the two large ovals in the last six races. During the span Busch has nabbed two runner-up and two third-place finishes. The fact that the No. 18 Toyota has been in the mix at crunch time in four of the last six superspeedway races is enough reason to warrant contender status this week. As to the history books, Busch is a one-time winner at Daytona International Speedway, although it has been some time ago since that victory. A lot of ups-and-downs have happened ever since. However, Busch has the speed and homerun potential to take this installment of the Coke Zero 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon will make his last visit to Daytona this weekend during his farewell tour. The four-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 the 2014 Daytona 500. Then he followed that up with a win in the 2015 Coke Zero 400. The Hendrick Motorsports star has been looking to get back into victory lane at Daytona since that July win two seasons ago. Earnhardt has been less than impressive over the last two seasons on the superspeedways, but we feel he and his team will make an immense effort to win this event. His 10-career victories between Daytona and Talladega puts Earnhardt in a very elite class in this style of racing.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The latest underdog to shake up the NASCAR ranks on superspeedways is Stenhouse. His thrilling win at Talladega in May was beyond legitimate, and very impressive. The Roush Fenway Racing driver held off a very fast Kyle Busch over the closing laps to secure his first-career Monster Energy Series Cup win, and first win on a superspeedway. It was the perfect addition to his already impressive and improving resume on the larger ovals. Stenhouse has one win and three Top-5 finishes in his last four starts between Daytona and Talladega. That includes an impressive fifth-place finish in this event one year ago at Daytona. He qualified fourth on the grid for that race and earned the impressive Top-5 finish. The speed of the Roush Fenway Fords on these ovals has been improving recently, and Stenhouse's ability to contend for wins has paralleled that improvement.

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

Joey Logano -
The young Penske Racing driver is trying to build some momentum as we head into the dog days of summer. Logano rides into Daytona weekend 12th in the overall driver standings, and looking to start a Top-10 streak. This will be the perfect oval for the driver of the No. 22 Ford to start a hot streak. He sports some good finishing stats at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. He has one victory and four Top 10s in his last five visits to the historic Florida oval. The Penske Racing star led 16 laps and finished sixth in this season's Daytona 500. That's a good experience to fall back on for this Saturday night. Logano is poised to build on his recent success at Daytona International Speedway.

Denny Hamlin -
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has been heating up of late. Hamlin is still winless for the season, but he's nabbed four Top-10 finishes in the last five races and climbed from 11th- to ninth-place in the driver point standings. He's coming to the perfect oval and race to keep this roll going for his JGR team. Hamlin has been stellar and has had great speed on these large ovals all the way back to the start of the 2014 season. He led 43 laps and was a major contender to win earlier this spring at Talladega before falling back to finish 11th due to all the cautions and restarts at the end of that event. Considering the speed that the No. 11 Toyota has shown on the restrictor-plate tracks the last couple seasons, Hamlin should be a steady Top 10 performer with an outside shot at the win.

Kevin Harvick -
The veteran SHR driver has enviable career numbers racing at Daytona International Speedway. Harvick has two-career victories and 14 Top-10 finishes at the historic speedway in Florida. The driver of the No. 4 Ford has 65 laps led in his last two starts on the restrictor-plate race tracks coming into this weekend. However, his luck hasn't held up for the big finishes. Harvick is coming off the big victory at Sonoma Raceway, so momentum is clearly on his side as we return to Daytona this weekend. His career 44 perent Top-10 rate at Daytona International Speedway puts him among some pretty elite company. He should make a strong and steady fantasy racing play at this high-risk oval.

Kurt Busch -
Our reigning Daytona 500 champion returns to the scene of his big win this past February. It was a major breakthrough for a driver who's been super consistent on the Daytona and Talladega ovals for years. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has enviable career numbers racing on the plate tracks. Busch cracks the Top 5 at Daytona and a stunning 41-percent rate and the Top 10 at an impressive 53-percent rate. Including the Daytona 500 win, he has four Top 10s in his last five starts at this huge oval and looking for more this Saturday night. That gives us great confidence in the No. 41 Ford team this week. Busch has the win and sixth-place Talladega finish in his two superspeedway starts this season. So the veteran driver has a lot of homerun potential in this event.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran has not had a problem with speed of late, nor has speed been an issue on the larger ovals. However, superspeedway racing has been fraught with danger for this driver and team, so the results have not consistently followed. Daytona will provide an opportunity for the No. 78 Toyota team to get the finish they deserve in this style of racing. If we look back in the recent past, it was Truex who finished a stunning runner-up in the 2016 Daytona 500. He won the pole position at Talladega last fall before an engine failure knocked him out the race and out of advancing in the Chase. Tough luck Truex will bring his best superspeedway car to Daytona this week, and look to buck the trend on finishes. From a fantasy perspective, cookie cutter ovals are better venues to deploy this driver and team, but he still brings homerun potential to Daytona.

Austin Dillon -
It's been an up-and-down season for Dillon and the No. 3 team. The Charlotte win though has to be one of the biggest thrills of this young driver's career. Restrictor-plate racing has been a strength of the RCR driver during his brief Cup Series career. Dillon has eight-career starts at DIS with five Top-10 finishes in those efforts, including a seventh-place finish in this event one year ago. His success isn't just limited to Daytona, as he's had some good performances at Talladega as well. Dillon has two Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes in his eight starts at the Alabama oval. This young driver is carrying on the sterling reputation of Richard Childress Racing on the superspeedways. Considering how motivated this team will be to crack the Top 10 this Saturday night, Dillon should put on a pretty good show.

Clint Bowyer -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is coming off the strong runner-up finish at Sonoma Raceway last weekend, and he'll carry that momentum into this weekend's Daytona night race. Bowyer has been a top performer on superspeedways for most of his career. In 23 Daytona starts he has 11 Top-10 finishes which checks in at a strong 48-percent rate, which is well above the norm. He has only two restrictor-plate track starts with his new No. 14 team, so the results will come. They showed a glimmer at Talladega this spring when Bowyer led 10 laps and cracked the Top 15 in the GEICO 500. This driver and team are capable of so much more in this style of racing. Bowyer finished ninth in this event one year ago racing for a cash-strapped and equipment starved team, so the ceiling is pretty high for Bowyer in the Coke Zero 400.

Trevor Bayne -
The 2011 Daytona 500 winner has begun to resurrect his superspeedway racing ability. After winning the Great American Race six years ago, he was largely irrelevant in these big oval events for a few years. However, that began to change in the 2015 season. Bayne now has four Top 10s in his last eight superspeedway starts. That includes a strong 10th-place finish in this season's Daytona 500. The Roush Fenway Racing team has really picked up the speed on these huge ovals, and it has shown in the results. Bayne led 5 laps at Talladega in May and looked poised to crack the Top 10 before a late, multi-car crash took him out of contention. He'll be hungry to make up for that mishap this Saturday night at DIS.

Paul Menard -
In what has been a difficult season, Menard has seemed to buck the trend when we visit superspeedways. The Richard Childress Racing veteran nabbed a brilliant fifth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, and he followed that up with a nearly as impressive ninth-place finish at Talladega in May. Those efforts snapped what was a drought for the No. 27 team on these two ovals during the 2016 campaign. His last 10 outings at the Daytona and Talladega ovals is clicking along at a decent 40-percent Top-10 rate, which is well above his career average individually at these two tracks. It could be that the 36-year-old veteran has finally discovered the key to staying out of the big wrecks and finishing consistently on the lead lap. In superspeedway racing, that is half the battle.

Ryan Blaney -
Wood Brothers Racing horsepower has looked very strong on these big ovals the last two seasons. Blaney has two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in his last five starts between Daytona and Talladega. It was the driver of the No. 21 Ford that was super impressive in our last race at Daytona. Blaney led 2 laps, and made a thrilling final charge on the last lap to finish runner-up in the Great American Race. His luck wouldn't hold up at Talladega in May as he would get caught up in a major accident, but the speed was still present. Blaney finished a respectable 14th in this event one year ago, and that ain't half bad for the end of your fantasy racing lineup. We see that as his low end potential for this Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson -
The three-time Daytona winner has always battled consistency issues on the large ovals. Johnson finished runner-up in this event two years ago, but the seven superspeedway races since have mostly been finishes outside the Top 20. That includes his crash and 34th-place finish in this season's Daytona 500. The No. 48 team certainly brings homerun potential to the race track each time they unload the car. However, certain tracks are not "locks" for Johnson to have a good performance. Daytona International Speedway is one of those on-again, off-again type of tracks. It's best to save a start for him later in the schedule and give him a bye this weekend in weekly lineup leagues.

Danica Patrick -
While her Stewart Haas Racing teammates, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, all make excellent fantasy racing starts this weekend the same cannot be said of the No. 10 Ford team. Patrick grabbed one pole position and a pair of Top-10 finishes in her first five starts at the Florida speedway. However, her last five starts at the track have been forgettable. Patrick's combined performance at Daytona and Talladega the last three seasons has been off for that matter. With only one finish inside the Top 20 in those last eight events and five crashes and DNF's during that span, it's been quite challenging for Patrick. Odds are better than average that she won't be running at the end of this event either.

Kyle Larson -
The championship standings leader had a tough outing at Sonoma's road course last weekend. We fear he could be in for another rough patch this week in the high-stakes form of racing we see at Daytona. The No. 42 Chevrolet team performed well on the superspeedways last season, nabbing three Top 10s in those four events. However, things have not started as well for Larson this year on the big tracks. A pair of 12th-place finishes at Daytona and Talladega to this point are not all that bad, but fall well short of why we deploy Larson in our fantasy racing lineups, especially in weekly lineup leagues. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver should be fast this weekend at Daytona, but don't count on him racing among the leaders. He just hasn't had the speed this season on the huge ovals, and Top-15 finishes are not reason enough to start Larson.

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had it pretty tough this season, punctuated by his 20th-place finish at Sonoma Raceway last weekend. Kenseth will pull himself up and dust himself off for this Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. However, the hopes for a rebound have to be slim when the numbers are put in context. Kenseth's last 10 superspeedway starts have shown that the No. 20 Toyota team has plenty of speed (average start position of 9.6), but no luck to finish these races. The veteran driver has only one Top-15 finish in the last 10 combined Daytona and Talladega events and an average finish of 26.6 across those starts despite 88 laps led. The breaks have simply not gone Kenseth's way the past couple seasons in this style of racing.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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