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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.

After visiting one of the slowest tracks on the Sprint Cup Series at Infineon Raceway, we leave the twists and turns of the road circuit behind us as we visit one of the fastest venues on the schedule. NASCAR 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 the week of July 4 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 2011 season, so we should now begin to see some trends forming. If the two-by-two racing that we saw at Daytona and Talladega earlier this year is still in effect, we are in for another thrilling ride this Saturday night. The 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway earlier this season tied the record for lead changes in a Talladega race with 88. The finish of that race at four-wide and two-by-two was unprecedented in NASCAR history. This season's Daytona 500 shattered the old lead change record of 59 with a new mark of 74. We should be in for those same type of fireworks in the Coke Zero 400 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 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 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 six years or 13 races at Daytona International Speedway.

Trevor Bayne1.024256135108.2
Tony Stewart14.41,190635231,582100.6
Kyle Busch18.61,660602641,67998.3
Kurt Busch13.81,787542171,59996.4
Jeff Gordon19.71,477481481,44589.6
Clint Bowyer13.21,290431461,06789.1
Matt Kenseth16.21,46464461,38987.9
Jimmie Johnson20.71,61024331,56887.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.01,593591191,44987.3
Carl Edwards16.51,8755131,42885.7
Jeff Burton19.41,63249511,29584.8
Kevin Harvick16.51,30263841,15484.7
Ryan Newman21.21,42748711,27482.9
Kasey Kahne15.81,5345881,17381.2
Jamie McMurray21.21,74137171,29081.1
Denny Hamlin22.91,0045712387979.6
Mark Martin19.51,22736621,17578.4
David Ragan16.81,05826972577.8
Martin Truex Jr.21.21,34948371,04476.9
Brian Vickers19.91,030453471676.4

Rookie Trevor Bayne won this year's Daytona 500. It was one of the most shocking upsets in NASCAR history and it catapulted the young driver to immediate stardom. Although all the focus was on Bayne heading to Talladega in April, the young driver wasn't able to pull the win. He did lead 5 laps but crashed out early in the race after a multi-car accident. Jimmie Johnson ended up winning that Talladega race by beating out a host of Childress and Hendrick teams with a four-wide, two-by-two finish at the stripe. It was his second career win at that restrictor-plate track. Johnson has struggled ever since, so we don't expect to see the No. 48 Chevrolet in victory lane this Saturday night. Aside from these two drivers, Kevin Harvick has made a living out of dominating these restrictor-plate races the last couple seasons. He's won two of the last six races on these huge ovals, including this event one year ago. Harvick dominated and won last season's Coke Zero 400 from the pole. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2011 Daytona 500 and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

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 efforts for owner Richard Childress are hard to ignore. In just his last six restrictor-plate track starts alone, Bowyer has led 144 laps and has one victory and one runner-up finish to his credit. The driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet finished a sub-par 17th in this season's Daytona 500, so expect a hungry Bowyer to show up at Daytona on Saturday night.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
We've redefined our opinions of Earnhardt in this charmed season that he's been putting together. This includes his revival of performance on the plate tracks. In his last three Daytona outings Earnhardt has collected one pole position and a pair of Top-5 finishes. The NASCAR icon led 11 laps and finished a brilliant fourth at Talladega in April, so he's racing with the leaders at the end stages of races on these huge ovals. That fact shouldn't change at all in the Coke Zero 400.

Kevin Harvick –
For whatever reasons the No. 29 Chevrolet team is just a tick better than everyone else on these super speedways. Harvick has two wins and four Top 5's in the last six races on restrictor-plate tracks. That includes his impressive win in this event one year ago. He led 28 laps and won from the pole in last year's Coke Zero 400. When the laps are winding down, everyone is jockeying to be in a drafting pair with this Richard Childress Racing veteran driver.

Jeff Gordon –
Call him the outside contender of the contenders to win this race. Gordon's career super speedway stats speak for themselves, and now that he's a multi-race winner in 2011, we have to take him very serious in this race. The six-time Daytona winner hasn't won at the huge oval since 2005, but he led 13 laps and finished third in this race one year ago. Gordon has one pole and three Top-10 finishes in his last four restrictor-pate races, so it's safe to say that the No. 24 team's super speedway program is up to speed right now.

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

Kurt Busch –
The Penske Racing star has enviable career numbers racing on the plate tracks. Busch cracks the Top 5 at Daytona and a head-spinning 48 percent rate and the Top 10 at an impressive 57 percent rate. The veteran driver has hammered out Top-10 finishes in seven of his last eight Daytona outings, so he's even exceeding his career averages currently. The No. 22 Dodge has led 38 laps in the two super speedway races thus far this season, so we're used to seeing Busch lead and finish up front at these huge ovals.

Carl Edwards –
The Roush Fenway Racing star has really come on strong of late on the big ovals. Only Kevin Harvick has more Top 10's that Edwards in the last year-and-a-half of competition on the restrictor-plate tracks. Edwards finished runner-up in this season's Daytona 500 and he also finished an impressive sixth at Talladega in April. The No. 99 Ford team is surging right now and finishing well on these super speedways. These two facts should be more than enough proof to warrant fantasy racing deployment this weekend.

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 won at Talladega in April to capture Johnson's second career victory at that huge oval, and he is also a one-time Daytona winner. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has had some tough luck at Daytona International Speedway in recent years, but we believe his Talladega performance from earlier this season is a better indicator of what to expect on 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 thus far in 2011. 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.

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

Juan Pablo Montoya –
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star has become a complete stock car driver in the last two seasons. Nothing is more evident of this than Montoya's performances at restrictor-plate ovals. His first five trips to DIS were nothing to write home about, but Montoya's last four efforts have yielded really nice results. The driver of the No. 42 Chevy has three Top-10 finishes in his last four visits to Daytona and almost 20 laps led during that span. Montoya has an equally impressive pole win and two Top 5's in his last three trips to Talladega.

Paul Menard –
Menard has only eight career starts at Daytona International Speedway. However, the young Richard Childress Racing driver is showing improvement at this huge oval. Menard's ninth-place finish in this season's Daytona 500 was a career-best effort at the facility. He also posted a respectable Top 15 effort in April at Talladega Superspeedway. The No. 27 team's restrictor-plate racing program appears to be in good shape, and Menard is only improving his two-car drafting techniques with each race at these super speedways.

Trevor Bayne –
The darling of the Daytona 500 is back at the scene of the crime this weekend, and hopes to recapture lightning in a bottle with a season sweep of Daytona. While that may not be likely, don't underestimate Bayne and this No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team. They were so good in the Daytona 500 earlier this year, they had teams scrambling to have Bayne push them to the front. While that race-winning car currently resides in the Daytona Museum, it's not a stretch to believe Bayne won't have another great car at his disposal for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night.

Regan Smith –
With Smith's big victory at Darlington a few weeks ago, the young driver served notice that he's finally “arrived” in the Sprint Cup Series. The No. 78 Chevrolet was incredibly fast in this season's Daytona 500, and Smith responded by posting a career-best Daytona effort of seventh-place. The Front Row Motorsports team has also cracked the Top 15 in their last two trips to Talladega Superspeedway. Smith should be able to find the same groove again at Daytona this weekend.

David Ragan –
Ragan narrowly missed a chance to win this season's Daytona 500. The young Roush Fenway Racing driver was leading on the final restart, but a premature lane change at the green flag ended up penalizing Ragan out of the victory. He will look to make amends in this Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. Ragan sports three career Top 10's at Daytona and a respectable average finish of 16.8. He's only finished outside the Top 20 twice in nine career starts at DIS, and that's some fantasy racing peace of mind.

A.J. Allmendinger –
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver enters this event on a two-race Top 15 streak with a pair of 13th-place finishes the last two weeks. Allmendinger is putting together a career season, so another good Daytona effort should be in store. The No. 43 team has given him fast cars at the restrictor-plate tracks this season. He had an 11th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a 13th-place finish in the April Talladega race. Allmendinger has been seen racing with the leaders this season on the restrictor-plate tracks, and Saturday night at DIS should be no exception.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Burton –
The veteran Richard Childress Racing driver enters this race mired in the worst slump of his NACAR career. We're 16 races into this season and Burton has yet to post a Top-10 finish. His 24th-place ranking in the driver standings hasn't been this low since his rookie season. Burton's slump coupled with his poor Daytona record in recent seasons is a major reason for concern. He's posted only one Top 10 in his last eight trips to Daytona International Speedway.

Kyle Busch –
It's hard to believe that one-time Daytona winner Busch is in our flops list week. However, when one looks closely at his recent history on these superspeedway ovals, we see pure mediocrity. Busch's eighth-place finish in this season's Daytona 500 snapped a four-race Top 10 drought at the huge oval. Despite leading well over 250 laps for his career at Daytona, Bush often finds the wrecker as much has he finds the Top 10 at this restrictor-plate track. The No. 18 team had a crash and DNF at Talladega in April, so super speedway racing appears to be Busch's Achilles' heel.

Matt Kenseth –
The 2009 Daytona 500 winner finds himself in the flops list this week. Another shocking pick considering the notoriety Kenseth gained for that huge win. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has had a great season, but his super speedway racing has been spotty of late. His last four restrictor-plate races have resulted in 15th-, 16th-, 34th- and 36th-place finishes. That's not the kind of numbers we expect when we deploy Roush Fenway Racing star Kenseth in our weekly lineup leagues. Keep him on the bench for this one.

Kasey Kahne –
Despite finishing second in this event one year ago, we have to go with the “what have you done for me lately” theme with Kahne at Daytona. That runner-up finish is like an island in a vast ocean. The Red Bull Racing star has only the one Top 10 in his last five starts at DIS. Most of those efforts resulted in finishes outside the Top 20. Kahne's Talladega numbers are equally disappointing. His last three trips to that super speedway have resulted in finishes outside the Top 20 as well. Kahne is capable of posting a Top 5 in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400, but he's more likely to fall way short of the mark based on his recent career numbers.