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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 go back racing under the lights this week. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series travels back to where the season started at Daytona International Speedway for this weekend's 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 event. This will be the third restrictor-plate race of the 2013 season, so we should now begin to see some trends form on these larger ovals. With the new Gen-6 race car being used for the second time this season at Daytona, we hope to see some improvements made to the racing. If the drivers can incorporate 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 30. That's not too far off what we saw in the Daytona 500, which was 28. So, despite the pack racing, we still have a lot of lead changes and parity in these restrictor-plate races. However, we need to remember the 11 cars that DNF'd at Talladega is also a season high, really illustrating the luck side of the equation in this style of racing too. So we have to be mindful of the multi-car crashes that 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 for 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 eight years or 17 races at Daytona International Speedway.

Kyle Busch18.92,334752812,17297.0
Matt Kenseth14.91,983732851,95293.2
Tony Stewart15.11,618685481,83693.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.52,297791201,95889.3
Jeff Gordon19.61,913561811,80488.3
Kurt Busch17.42,171642231,80888.0
Clint Bowyer15.51,747681501,45086.6
Jimmie Johnson21.62,04037501,91985.3
Jeff Burton18.22,06968781,68584.9
Denny Hamlin20.51,496722171,37884.5
Ryan Newman19.41,78062991,56182.8
Carl Edwards17.52,2305941,64782.7
Kevin Harvick17.21,716821001,46282.6
Kasey Kahne16.52,00769271,52181.6
Joey Logano18.81,18427574980.1
Martin Truex Jr.21.41,94659621,57379.9
Mark Martin18.81,64748791,51079.6
Greg Biffle20.61,508691171,54879.4
Jamie McMurray21.92,18848181,50477.3
Danica Patrick23.08311519674.2

Hendrick Motorsports star Jimmie Johnson won this year's Daytona 500. The victory made him a two-time winner of the Great American Race and now a very respected superspeedway driver around the garage area. Johnson's historical stats and loop stats on superspeedways has only improved over the years. Luck has always been his Achilles' heel at Daytona, but he seemed 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 Johnson managed to lead 16 laps and finish a brilliant fifth. David Ragan, in thrilling fashion, foiled Johnson's hopes for that win, and picked up his second career restrictor-plate victory in just the last three seasons. We'll need to keep a watchful eye on the driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford as he could be a giant-killer again this Saturday night. While he didn't win either race, Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr., also had a strong presence in the two superspeedway races earlier this season. Earnhardt didn't lead any laps in the Daytona 500 but he finished a powerful second after a late charge at leader Johnson. Given that the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is a seven-time winner on the superspeedway, we have to give him his due respect in this one. Aside from the Chevrolet and Ford angles on this event, we'll need to keep a look out for the Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing. New Gibbs driver Matt Kenseth has been about the closest thing we have to a restrictor-plate ace in the last few seasons. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, and he's led a whopping 228 laps in the new Gen-6 car this season between the Daytona and Talladega events. Kenseth has the experience to easily walk away with a third-career Daytona victory and first-ever win in the Coke Zero 400. We'll take a look at recent history, and the 2013 Daytona 500 and give you the drivers you need this weekend to win your league.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Matt Kenseth -
The two-time Daytona 500 winner finds himself solidly atop the contenders list this week. Kenseth's recent work on restrictor-plate tracks is just amazingly good. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has had a great season, and he just picked up his fourth victory of the year at Kentucky Speedway. His last six restrictor-plate races have resulted in two victories, four Top-5 finishes and a whopping 473 laps led. The Joe Gibbs Racing star led 142 laps in our last superspeedway race at Talladega before a late caution conspired to rob him of the victory. Kenseth will be the man to beat in the Coke Zero 400.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart has been scrambling hard to get back into race-winning and championship-contending form. It's almost improbable that he enters this weekend a dismal 17th in the championship standings. Stewart loves this summer race at Daytona, and he has won the 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2012 installments of this event. During his career Smoke has led well over 650 laps at Daytona International Speedway and picked up 13 Top-10 finishes. It seems no matter how the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet's season is going he comes to Daytona in July with his game face on. Don't be surprised to see it again this Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
The Daytona 500 winner comes to the historic Florida superspeedway with the season-sweep on his mind. Johnson led 17 laps and out-dueled Matt Kenseth to win this February's Great American Race. It was his second career victory in the Daytona 500 and picked up on what has been an improving restrictor-plate racing resume for the five-time champion. In early May, Johnson went to Talladega and led 16 laps among the contenders to finish an impressive fifth in the Aaron's 499. It seems that the Hendrick Motorsports star has slaughtered his past superspeedway demons and is now a top play on these type ovals.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Despite being winless at Daytona International Speedway for the last eight seasons, we have to give the NASCAR icon his due respect on the large ovals. Two of Earnhardt's last three trips to DIS have netted runner-up finishes. The two-time Daytona winner may be in the middle of a winning dry spell at this track, but he hasn't forgotten how to position himself to be in the running for the win in the closing laps. 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 10.8 finish average in the last six Sprint Cup superspeedway races is second only to Matt Kenseth.

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

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 suddenly struggling No. 16 Ford team. Biffle has been a top performer the last couple seasons on these huge ovals. Four of his last six races at Daytona and Talladega have netted the veteran Top-10 finishes. He's led 110 laps in those six efforts and certainly made his presence felt at the front of the field. The last time we were in Daytona Biffle started fifth on the grid and finished a respectable sixth in the Great American Race. We expect a similar performance in the Coke Zero 400.

David Ragan -
The Cinderella story of Talladega comes to Daytona this weekend looking to recapture lightning in a bottle. You have to admit, Ragan's last-lap charge to the front in the star-studded lead pack at Talladega in May and snatching a victory away from much higher profile drivers has been one of the highlights of the 2013 season. Ragan has always had a knack for this style of racing. Even in his Roush Fenway days he was proficient on the restrictor-plate tracks. Three of his last six starts on the superspeedways for Front Row Racing have netted Top-10 finishes. Granted, he has had some Daytona demons hanging around, but his skill should rise above his luck at DIS this weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
Despite his recent bad luck, we would be in error to leave Keselowski off the solid plays list this week. The defending Sprint Cup Series champion is a proven restrictor-plate racer, and has the pedigree to back that fact up. Keselowski has one victory and four Top-10 finishes in his last five superspeedway races. That includes a brilliant fourth-place finish at Daytona earlier this season in the Daytona 500. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is two-time winner on superspeedway, and has shown the deft ability to avoid the "big one" during go time. Keselowski should be knocking on the door of the Top 5 again this Saturday night at DIS.

Joey Logano -
Those "next steps" that everyone has been waiting for Logano to take the last two years appear to finally be happening. The move to Penske Racing has spurred the next stage of development with this young driver's skills. Logano rides into Daytona weekend 10th in the overall driver standings, with five Top-10 finishes in the last six races. The good racing should continue for the No. 22 team this weekend at Daytona. Logano sports some good finishing stats at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. He's cracked the Top 10 in three of his last four 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.

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

Carl Edwards -
Edwards has not been traditionally a strong performer on the superspeedways, but he's been gradually reversing this trend the last few seasons. The Roush Fenway Racing star boasts three Top-10 finishes in his last six trips to Daytona and Talladega. He won the pole, led 3 laps and finished fifth in the last restrictor-plate race we had at Talladega in early May. Edwards has an eye-popping six Top 10s in his last eight trips to Daytona International Speedway. That has boosted his career Top 10 rate at the huge oval from 22 percent to 47 percent in just the last four years.

Ryan Newman -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is auditioning for a new job in 2014. He's made several statements of late about going to somewhere he's wanted, and expected to perform. That's a good tip on his performance for the rest of this season. Newman should be racing hard for the next 19 races to secure that new ride. His Daytona work has been flawless of late. His last two trips to Daytona Beach have netted a pair of Top-5 finishes. That goes along with his strong recent performances at Talladega as well. Newman should be a driver to keep an eye on at Daytona this Saturday night.

Greg Biffle -
The veteran Roush Fenway Racing driver enters this race waste deep in the hunt for this season's championship. We're 17 races into this season and Biffle is ranked ninth in the championship standings entering this week. He has been equally as powerful on the superspeedways in recent seasons to his teammate Carl Edwards. Biffle has 110 laps led and four Top-10 finishes to show for at both Daytona and Talladega since last season. The driver of the No. 16 Ford won this event in his rookie season of 2003, so he knows what it takes to win on this prime-time racing stage at Daytona.

Kevin Harvick -
The veteran RCR driver has enviable career numbers racing at Daytona International Speedway. Harvick has two career victories and 10 Top-10 finishes at the historic speedway in Florida. The driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet saw his plate track stats swoon during the tandem draft seasons we've had recently, but he has responded well to the return of pack racing at the superspeedways. Harvick has crashed in his two prior superspeedway starts this season, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time has to end at some point. He's simply too gifted a driver in this style of racing to be held down for long.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The rookie has had a good campaign to this point in 2013. Stenhouse enters Daytona weekend 20th in the championship standings, but still looking for his first 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 every week. The restrictor-plate tracks have been no exception to that level of performance either. Stenhouse has claimed 12th- and 13th-place finishes in his Daytona and Talladega outings this season. 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. 55 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 between Daytona and Talladega. The last time we saw him in action he raced to a brilliant fourth-place finish in the Aaron's 499 in May. Waltrip is a three-time Daytona winner and he finished ninth in this event one year ago. We have high expectations for this Toyota driver this weekend.

David Gilliland -
Gilliland is the other Front Row Motorsports driver you should consider rolling in weekly lineup leagues this week. The driver of the No. 38 Ford is not quite as good as his teammate Ragan on these superspeedways, but he's quite respectable and can generally stay out of the multi-car crashes. Gilliland pushed his teammate Ragan to the win at Talladega in May and the two drivers showed incredible skill and nerve in beating some of the best drivers in the series on that furious last lap. The FRM driver has three Top-15 finishes in his last six superspeedway starts.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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 excellent loop scoring stats but offset by some major risk. Busch's recent visits to the Florida oval are very disappointing. His engine failure in the Daytona 500 is just the most recent sign of heartache on the restrictor-plate tracks. Busch went to Talladega in May looking for redemption, but instead found more trouble with a crash and 37th-place finish. He's a wonderfully gifted driver, but the Joe Gibbs Racing star is lacking the rabbit's foot necessary to stay out of trouble on these turbulent tracks.

Jeff Gordon -
The Hendrick Motorsports star's recent uptrend in performance will get a real test this weekend at Daytona. Gordon carries a two-race Top 10 streak 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 two DNF's. 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 40 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 three Daytona outings have seen him lead zero laps and collect two finishes outside the Top 30. Despite his recent surge in performance, we don't expect this trend to change in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver became noteworthy but for all the wrong reasons in last season's Daytona 500. Montoya's bizarre mechanical failure and caution lap crash into the jet dryer and subsequent four-alarm blaze won't be soon forgotten by legions of NASCAR fans. That one incident may be what Montoya is most remembered for at Daytona and not for Top-10 finishes. The EGR veteran has only four Top 10s in 13 starts at Daytona. His last three trips have been uninspiring to say the least with finishes of 36th, 28th and 39th.