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Coke Zero 400 Preview: Fourth of July Fireworks

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

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 4 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 2010 season, but only the second since the adoption of the new rear deck lid spoiler. If the debut of this new technical change to the cars at Talladega earlier this season is any indication, we are in for another thrilling ride this Saturday night. The 500-mile race at Talladega earlier this season with the new spoiler set a new record for lead changes in a Talladega race with 88. Kevin Harvick's sling-shot pass of Jamie McMurray on the final lap to win and break a 115-race winless streak. We could be in for those same type of fireworks in the Coke Zero 400.

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 a watchful eye 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 loops stats will illustrate the teams that run up front and dominate at Daytona on a regular basis. The loop stats shown below cover the last six years or 11 races at Daytona International Speedway.

Tony Stewart13.5865545161,383104.5
Kyle Busch17.61,441432381,520100.6
Matt Kenseth14.71,29856461,29493.4
Kurt Busch15.31,315421841,29292.7
Jimmie Johnson19.21,39720321,44091.8
Jeff Gordon20.51,286401341,29791.5
Clint Bowyer12.3942339683188.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.41,245511101,21887.7
Kevin Harvick15.51,12861511,00385.4
Carl Edwards18.71,4854131,19484.0
Ryan Newman20.61,13841341,06582.7
Jeff Burton19.21,33644351,06982.5
Jamie McMurray19.81,3673161,07282.1
Denny Hamlin23.08535111278781.5
Mark Martin19.61,08030571,08080.5
Kasey Kahne16.21,21144893880.4
Elliott Sadler15.01,024284293979.5
David Ragan14.182415260579.3
Martin Truex Jr.20.01,026352084576.4
A.J. Allmendinger23.5379241130175.0

Jamie McMurray won this year's Daytona 500, but it wasn't a big shocker considering how well the Earnhardt-Ganassi driver has raced on restrictor-plate tracks in recent seasons. He also won this event in 2007 for owner Jack Roush. McMurray led only 3 of the 160 laps run that night at Daytona, but he was in the right place at the right time to collect his first Daytona win. Timing is everything in restrictor-plate racing and McMurray clearly has a knack for it. When the series visited Talladega in the spring of this year, it was Kevin Harvick foiling Jamie McMurray on the last lap to take the checkered flag. You can safely assume that these two will be dueling again on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, and likely to decide who will go to victory lane again. Aside from these two, Tony Stewart has made a living out of winning this Saturday night event in Daytona. He owns three career wins in this night race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Based on how well Smoke has raced recently, he will make his presence felt in this 400-mile dash to the finish. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2010 Daytona 500 and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jamie McMurray
In recent seasons McMurray has been the most consistent driver on the restrictor-plate tracks. He lacks the victories to be considered the most dominant driver on these ovals, but his efforts for both Jack Roush and now owner Chip Ganassi are hard to ignore. McMurray has led laps in each of the last three restrictor-plate events and he's won two victories and one runner-up finish in those races. He'll make his presence felt on Saturday night at Daytona.

Tony Stewart
Stewart has been getting closer and closer to winning his first race of the season in recent weeks. It's almost improbable that he has no victories thus far in 2010. Stewart loves this summer race at Daytona as he won the 2005, 2006 and 2009 installments of this event. 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.

Kevin Harvick
For whatever reasons the No. 29 team is having just an incredible season. Aside from Harvick's weekly consistency, we can't forget his thrilling win at Talladega earlier this season. The RCR Chevrolet of Harvick just seems to come to life on these restrictor-plate tracks, and usually in the closing laps. He led 41 laps and finished seventh in this season's Daytona 500 and could easily improve on that effort this Saturday night.

Kurt Busch
Call him the outside contender of the contenders to win this race. Busch's super speedway stats speak for themselves. He's led laps in each of his last five restrictor-plate races and he's led 184 laps at Daytona in the last six years. Busch has never won at Daytona, but he's been a regular face in the Top 5 there in recent seasons. He's finished in the Top 5 in four of the last six races at the 2.5-mile oval. The Blue Deuce led 33 laps in this season's Daytona 500 before misfortune sent Busch to a 23rd-place finish.

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

Kyle Busch
The Joe Gibbs Racing teams seemed to adapt best to the rear deck lid spoiler change that we saw at Talladega earlier this season. All three Gibbs' drivers could grab virtually any car and push their way to the front at will and sling shot past the leader. Busch's No. 18 Toyota seemed to be the strongest of the trio. He led 22 laps and finished ninth in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega. Busch should be up to a similar performance this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson may be a better driver on the intermediate ovals and short tracks, but we still have to respect his abilities at the restrictor-plate tracks, although his stats are not as stellar. The No. 48 team has had a tough season so far on the plate tracks, but that should change Saturday night at Daytona. Johnson has a combined 16 Top 10's at both Daytona and Talladega in 34 career starts. That's a respectable 47 percent rate at these difficult, wreck-riddled tracks. Johnson finished a brilliant second in this event one year ago, and he's surely not forgotten that outing.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
We've been very pessimistic about Earnhardt's restrictor-plate fantasy racing worth since falling on hard times the last few seasons. However, his second-place showing in the Daytona 500 this year shows that the No. 88 team still has a few aces to play on these large ovals. Earnhardt is a two-time Daytona winner, and despite finishing 13th at Talladega, we feel he'll be a Top 5 threat in the Coke Zero 400.

Denny Hamlin
The rocket ships that JGR fielded at Talladega had Hamlin showing as much muscle on a restrictor-plate track as we can ever remember. The No. 11 Toyota was able to draft to the front with anyone willing to jump in front of Hamlin's express train. He has had difficulty getting results on these large ovals over his career, but good equipment goes a long way towards improving that statistic. Hamlin has finished in the Top 5 in two of his last four superspeedway races.

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

Joey Logano
Logano has only six career starts on the restrictor-plate tracks. However, the young Joe Gibbs Racing driver is showing improvement on these superspeedways. He was one of the three-team racing assault we saw at Talladega earlier this season. Logano could push to the front and race with the leaders. He led 9 laps before being caught up in a big crash at Talladega in the spring.

Jeff Burton
The veteran Richard Childress Racing driver enters this race firmly fixed in the field for this season's Chase for the Cup. Burton has seven Top 10's thus far this season and the No. 31 team consistently gives him fast race cars. Burton logged a respectable 11th-place finish at Daytona earlier this season, and he's a one-time winner of this event. In the race at Talladega this spring, Burton led an impressive 28 laps before being caught up in the mayhem.

David Reutimann
Reutimann has yet to be a "finisher" on the super speedways during his brief Sprint Cup career, but he's reversing that trend of late. The Michael Waltrip Racing organization has given him great cars in recent outings. Reutimann cracked the Top 5 in the Daytona 500 this February, and he came to Talladega and led 5 laps to crack the Top 15 in the Aaron's 499 this April. We expect to see the No. 00 Toyota running with the leaders this Saturday night.

David Ragan
Ragan has been an infrequent name in our sleepers list this season, but there have been some recent signs of life in the No. 6 Ford camp. He's fresh off a solid 20th-place finish at Loudon, which has been his best outing in weeks. Ragan has been a consistent performer on super speedways the last few seasons, with a 50 percent Top 10 rate at the restrictor-plate tracks. In what has been an otherwise disappointing season, the No. 6 team has racked up 16th- and 6th-place finishes at Daytona and Talladega.

Kasey Kahne
One of the more impressive drivers the last month of the season has been Kahne. Currently ranked 20th in the series standings, Kahne collected a pair of Top 5's at Michigan and Sonoma recently, and he had the fastest car on the track at Loudon last weekend before an engine failure ruined his shot at victory lane. The driver of the No. 9 Ford has had Top 10 runs at Daytona in the past, and his second-place finish at Talladega last fall is still fresh in our memory. Kahne is a streaking driver coming to a good oval for his skills.

A.J. Allmendinger
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver enters this event on a six-race Top 15 streak with a pair of Top 10's during this span. Allmendinger is racing as well as he has ever done during his Sprint Cup Series career. The No. 43 team has given him fast cars at the restrictor-plate tracks this season. Alllmendinger has led 16 laps and raced with the leaders at both Daytona and Talladega earlier this season, although the results have not followed. Considering this team's current streak, we believe Allmendinger will get the finish he deserves in the Coke Zero 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Gordon
It's hard to believe that six-time Daytona winner Gordon is in our flops list week. However, when one looks closely at his recent history on these superspeedway ovals, we see pure mediocrity. Gordon has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last five Daytona races, and he's been just as underwhelming at Talladega with no Top 10's in his last five races there. Something is wrong with the restrictor-plate program in the No. 24 camp. This is not a week in the fantasy racing season to gamble that Gordon turns it around.

Ryan Newman
The 2008 Daytona 500 winner finds himself in the flops list this week. Another shocking pick considering the notoriety Newman gained for that huge win. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has struggled mightily at these ovals since that victory. In nine restrictor-plate races since that win, Newman has only two Top-10 finishes and a woeful 25.2 average finish. Luck has been scarce too. His last three plate races have seen him caught up in wrecks and collecting DNF's in each.

Sam Hornish Jr.
While Hornish has been one of our favorite spot starts in weekly lineup leagues this season, he warrants a benching this weekend at Daytona. The No. 77 team has started nine superspeedway races with Hornish behind the wheel, and he has only one Top-20 finish in those starts. While the Penske Racing driver has embraced other tracks on the Sprint Cup Series circuit, restrictor-plate tracks clearly give him problems.

Brad Keselowski
Despite winning the 2009 Aaron's 499 at Talladega for small race team Phoenix Racing, Keselowski doesn't have it all figured out on these tracks. He has five career Sprint Cup Series starts on these huge ovals with one win and two Top 10's to show for. Since moving to Penske Racing, Keselowski's luck hasn't been as favorable. With 36th- and 34th-place finishes this season on the superspeedways, we're not holding our breath for the No. 12 Dodge team this Saturday night.