Coke Zero Sugar 400 Preview: Fourth of July Fireworks

Coke Zero Sugar 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 at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero Sugar 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 2018 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 25 lead changes and was one of the most competitive events since the season-opener at Daytona. The Daytona 500 also offered a similar 24 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.

We return to racing under the lights this week. The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series travels back to where the season started at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero Sugar 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 2018 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 25 lead changes and was one of the most competitive events since the season-opener at Daytona. The Daytona 500 also offered a similar 24 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 Sugar 400 this weekend. With this event at Daytona being held at night it 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 13 years or 27 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch18.73,4461063822,95891.7
Ryan Blaney17.81,3583112980591.2
Kurt Busch16.13,981972912,91490.2
Denny Hamlin16.83,443994072,64989.4
Darrell Wallace Jr.8.53078023188.1
Joey Logano16.63,00977631,89187.3
Matt Kenseth18.53,216943602,71587.3
Jimmie Johnson20.73,719622622,98186.3
Kevin Harvick17.93,2361081582,35582.7
Kasey Kahne19.03,86177532,59380.8
Brad Keselowski22.32,637611901,63479.8
Jamie McMurray21.34,13778522,49679.5
Clint Bowyer15.82,7711051572,02478.5
Martin Truex Jr.22.43,22287722,42577.5
Austin Dillon13.81,233461886976.6
Ryan Newman18.32,2691031011,92274.7
Paul Menard18.52,38079681,61374.0
Aric Almirola20.31,325482285173.2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.91,442552872972.6
Erik Jones28.026092015570.3

Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon 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. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has always been a consistent performer at the Daytona oval, but he's never came that close to winning. However, the late cautions and mayhem that were the Daytona 500 made for a perfect situation for Dillon, and he wasted no time seizing that opportunity. When the series traveled to Talladega in late April it was a total free-for-all, but Joey Logano managed to lead the most laps with 70. His teammate at Penske Racing, Brad Keselowski, would also led 21 laps, but would crash out short of full distance. It would be Logano walking away with that victory. This duo has constructed a monopoly on the Talladega oval, although they've both also had more limited success at Daytona. They always show up with fast race cars at both superspeedways.

While he didn't win either race, Kurt Busch will be looking to make his mark this Saturday night. He finished runner-up at Talladega this spring, and he led 16 laps at Daytona before crashing out on lap 198. Busch was a factor in both races, and a serious threat to win. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran understands racing in the draft perhaps better than any other driver in NASCAR's top division. Aside from these storylines, Denny Hamlin has been the best superspeedway performer for the Toyota camp the last three seasons. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is the only driver from this manufacturer with a victory in the last 10 events between Daytona and Talladega. Hamlin is really their best hope when it comes to upsetting these more dominant Ford drivers on the big ovals. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2018 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

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing ace is trying to build some momentum as we head into the summer stretch of the schedule. Logano rides into Daytona weekend third in the overall driver standings, and looking to pick up another win that would bolster his Chase for the Cup standing. This will be the perfect oval for the driver of the No. 22 Ford to snatch that victory and consolidate his high ranking in the driver standings. Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500, and he won earlier this season at Talladega. He now boasts four-combined victories between Daytona and Talladega. At this present time, there's no more dominant driver in the series on these big ovals than Logano.

Kurt Busch -
The 2017 Daytona 500 champion will return to the scene of his big win two seasons ago. Busch has always been a consistent finisher on the ovals of Daytona and Talladega, but his ability to win at them is only a more recent development. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has enviable career numbers racing on the plate tracks. Busch cracks the Top 5 at Daytona at a stunning 38-percent rate and the Top 10 at an impressive 50-percent rate. His Talladega performances are equally impressive. The driver of the No. 41 Ford owns a 54-percent Top-10 rate at that oval as well. The last time we saw Busch in action on a superspeedway he qualified on the outside pole, raced with the leaders all afternoon long and finished runner-up at Talladega in April. It's that kind of speed he'll bring to Daytona this Saturday night.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has become a fantasy racing staple each time we visit the big tracks of Daytona and Talladega. Stenhouse has nabbed two victories and five Top-5 finishes in his last eight starts between these two ovals. He's led a combined 58 laps during this span, so he's not just being an opportunistic finisher, he's racing up front the majority of these races. Stenhouse won this event one year ago with some thrilling, late-race dramatics. That's the upside the driver of the No. 17 Ford brings to the table. His knowledge of pack racing in the draft, and keeping his car in the running until the endgame begins in these wild races. Stenhouse's 4 laps led and fifth-place finish at Talladega in April are a good reminder of this ability.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski is like the big league slugger in baseball when it comes to superspeedway racing. He's either going to hit a homerun or he's going to strikeout. Either way, you have to give him a look and due respect when it comes to racing at either Daytona or Talladega. While the Penske Racing star has had more success and collected more trophies at the Alabama oval, he does bring some value to Daytona. Keselowski won this event two seasons ago in a dominant performance. He led 115 laps and pounded the field into the pavement for his first-ever Daytona win. The risk side of the equation is that he's crashed out of his last three Daytona races. It truly is either "checkers or wreckers" for the No. 2 Ford team, but everyone needs to be fully aware of the upside Keselowski brings to the table.

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

Kyle Busch -
Busch has been consistently fast at both Daytona and Talladega for much of his career. Consistently finishing these races has always been an issue. Coming off the big win at Chicago, we really like the idea of the Joe Gibbs Racing star rising above his bad luck in superspeedway racing. If we analyze the data closely, there seems to be a pattern of when Busch is streaking, he turns in good performances at both Daytona and Talladega. He led 48 laps and finished third at Talladega last spring. He also led 16 laps and finished runner-up in this event at Daytona two seasons ago. While Busch does have a tendency to fade to irrelevance in restrictor-plate racing, we believe this time around will be a weekend to deploy the No. 18 Toyota.

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 riding a two race Top-10 streak into Daytona this weekend and sitting eighth overall in the points. 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 22 laps and finished third in the season-opening Daytona 500. Hamlin was also the winner of the 2016 Daytona 500. He's led over 400 career laps at this historic oval. 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.

Aric Almirola -
Were it not for some wheel issues on the No. 10 Ford this past week at Chicago, Almirola would have likely racked up his first win of the season in that event. He had incredible speed, but some bad luck. The veteran driver will shake that off at Daytona. Almirola very nearly won this season's Daytona 500, but he came out on the short end of a blocking battle with Austin Dillon on the last lap. It did little to sully his recent superspeedway stats. Almirola has five Top-10 finishes in his last six starts between Daytona and Talladega, and no finishes outside the Top-15 in his last seven straight at these ovals. Now that SHR is giving him cars capable of winning these races, look out. Almirola represents consistency with tremendous upside for Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Clint Bowyer -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is coming off a frustrating performance at Chicago. He had a car capable of winning, but made too many mistakes to overcome. Bowyer has been a top performer on superspeedways for most of his career. In 25 Daytona starts he has 12 Top-10 finishes which checks in at a strong 48-percent rate, which is well above the norm. He led 4 laps and finished runner-up in this event one year ago with his SHR No. 14 team. Bowyer is a two-time winner with a similar 48-percent Top-10 rate at the Talladega oval. That proves his superspeedway racing skill is no accident. He understands racing in the draft, and what to do with good race cars on these high risk ovals. Bowyer will get a chance to make up for Chicago disappointment in this 400-mile battle under the lights.

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

Kevin Harvick -
Normally Harvick is near the top of our racing articles, but he comes back to the pack just a bit in restrictor-plate racing. 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 57 laps led in his last three starts at Daytona. However, his luck hasn't held up for the big finishes. Harvick is coming off a brilliant third-place finish at Chicago and riding a four-race Top-5 streak, so momentum is clearly on his side as we return to Daytona this weekend. His career 41-perent Top-10 rate at Daytona International Speedway puts him among some pretty good company. He should make a strong and steady fantasy racing play at this high-risk oval.

Austin Dillon -
It's been an up-and-down season for Dillon and the No. 3 team, but you can't take away that thrilling victory in the season-opening Daytona 500. It capped what has become a pretty good career for Dillon on the big tracks. Aside from the win, the RCR driver owns six Top-10 finishes in 10-career starts at Daytona. That 60-percent rate is well better than the norm. Dillon has had much more luck and success at this oval as opposed to Talladega. That puts some emphasis on the No. 3 Chevrolet team this week. Dillon's subpar season will make him even more motivated to put on a big performance in his return to the scene of his Daytona 500 victory. For weekly lineup fantasy leagues, Dillon makes a perfect play for salary cap or limited start games.

Ryan Newman -
The 2008 Daytona 500 winner has always been a steady performer on the superspeedways. Newman has enjoyed a bit of an uptick at Daytona since moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2014. He has three Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes at the Florida oval in his last six starts. That works out to a surprising 11.8 average finish over the span, and well better than his career average at Daytona of 19.3. For decades Childress has always been known for speed in restrictor-plate racing, and who could argue looking at Newman's numbers. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has been equally successful at Talladega. In fact, he rides a four-race Top-10 streak at both ovals into this weekend's action. Now those are results you simply can't ignore.

Paul Menard -
2018 has been a revival of sorts for Menard. He fell into a bit of a rut at Richard Childress Racing, but he seems to be liking his fresh start at Wood Brothers Racing. Menard is fresh off a pole position and steady 13th-place finish at Chicago. He'll carry that momentum into Daytona this week, as he really likes superspeedway racing. Menard finished a dazzling sixth in his Daytona 500 debut with the No. 21 team in February. He'll be excited to return to the scene of that performance this Saturday night. The veteran driver has four Top 10s in his last six combined starts between Daytona and Talladega. Menard also rides a three-race Daytona Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. Those performances don't happen by accident in this style of racing.

Ryan Blaney -
Blaney simply had incredible speed earlier this season at Daytona, and we can't forget that. He led 118 laps and dominated much of the Daytona 500 before he got shuffled out at the end and finished seventh. While his youth and inexperience are a bit of a handicap, the No. 12 Penske Racing team closes that gap some with sheer speed. Blaney now has six-career starts at Daytona, so the lessons learned of restrictor-plate racing should start to take hold. Two of his last three efforts at Daytona International Speedway have netted Top 10s. That illustrative of the learning curve. While Blaney will still be prone to make a young driver mistake in this style of racing, he brings more than enough upside to offset the risk.

David Ragan -
The Front Row Motorsports veteran just has a knack for this style of racing. Ragan has two victories in his 12 seasons of racing at NASCAR's top level, and both have come on superspeedways. He won this event in 2011 for former boss Jack Roush, and he won a thrilling Talladega race in 2013. Ragan is the supreme wild card to play for both Daytona and Talladega. Aside from the victories, he has a nose for the Top 10 on these tracks as well. Four of his last five starts between the two tracks have netted Top-10 finishes, including a sixth-place finish in this event one year ago. When it comes to crunch time, Ragan knows when to make his move on these ovals and who to partner with to get through the field. That's a huge advantage in this style of racing.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

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. Truex did finish runner-up in the 2016 Daytona 500, but that's been the outlier. This veteran has only three Top-10 finishes in 26 starts at this facility. That works out to a lowly 12-percent Top-10 rate. The vast improvement in the Furniture Row Racing team the last three years hasn't seemed to affect this aspect of Truex's racing. It's best to stash him on the bench this week, and save him for an intermediate oval in the schedule.

Jimmie Johnson -
The three-time Daytona winner has always battled consistency issues on the large ovals. Johnson accomplished most of his achievements at Daytona and Talladega much earlier in his career. As his skills have begun to deteriorate the last couple seasons, so has his performances on the superspeedways. Johnson's last 10 starts between Daytona and Talladega have only netted one Top-10 finish against four DNF's. He's only led 32 laps during that span, so he's not been near the front very much. Johnson's crash and 38th-place finish in the season opening Daytona 500 seem like a bad omen for this weekend. It's best to steer clear of the No. 48 Chevrolet team this weekend.

Chase Elliott -
The young Hendrick Motorsports driver pulled a bit of a disappointing disappearing act at Chicago this past week. After starting third on the grid, he peddled to a lackluster 19th-place finish in the Windy City. It's really been a tough and inconsistent season for the No. 9 team. Elliott faces tough odds again this week at Daytona. While he's won three pole positions and two outside poles in the last 10 superspeedway events, his finishes have not followed that speed. He qualified on the outside pole and led 4 laps in this event one year ago, but finished a distant 22nd. Elliott returned to Daytona this February and qualified fourth on the gird, but crashed and finished 33rd in the Daytona 500. His luck has only been marginally better at Talladega. Elliott is a high risk driver to deploy in Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing star is fresh off a runner-up finish and entertaining battle to the finish with Kyle Busch this past week at Chicago. We wish there was better news for Larson this week, but a visit to Daytona is not likely good news for the No. 42 team. Larson's recent record at restrictor-plate racing is less than encouraging. He only has three Top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts between Daytona and Talladega. That includes a six-race Top-10 drought at the ovals. Larson was a subpar 19th-place finisher in the season-opening Daytona 500, and he found his usual Talladega trouble and finished 40th at Talladega in April. This style of racing has never really suited Larson, so it's best to keep him benched for this round of the Monster Energy Cup Series schedule.

Want to Read More?
Subscribe to RotoWire to see the full article.

We reserve some of our best content for our paid subscribers. Plus, if you choose to subscribe you can discuss this article with the author and the rest of the RotoWire community.

Get Instant Access To This Article Get Access To This Article
RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only NASCAR Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire NASCAR fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
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.
NASCAR Barometer:  William Byron Wins Rain-Delayed Daytona 500
NASCAR Barometer: William Byron Wins Rain-Delayed Daytona 500
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Daytona 500
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Daytona 500
NASCAR DFS:  Daytona 500
NASCAR DFS: Daytona 500
NASCAR Xfinity DFS: United Rentals 300
NASCAR Xfinity DFS: United Rentals 300