Expect the Roush Fenway Racing drivers to lead the pack again at Daytona. [Chris Graythen / Getty Images for NASCAR]
Mash The Gas - Daytona Preview
by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann
Another Saturday night race is on tap this weekend as the first half of the NASCAR Spring Cup Series season concludes with the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola running under the lights at the Daytona International Speedway. 160 laps make up the 400 miles at the famed 2.5 mile superspeedway in Daytona Beach, FL. The green flag is scheduled to fly at 7:49pm Saturday evening July 7th.
Traditionally run on Independence Day as the "Firecracker 400", the race was moved to Saturday night some years ago to better accommodate the fans having to endure the scorching Florida July sun. Daytona also means a return to the restrictor plates and based on the two plate races held already this year, the usual suspects are the favorites.
Dan Margetta: Biffle and teammate Matt Kenseth have figured into both plate races this season. At Daytona they had their act together and Kenseth scored the win while at Talladega some miscommunication allowed Brad Keselowski to steal the victory. Biffle should be strong once again at Daytona and this time will look to capture the win and hush the armchair quarterbacks that second-guessed his decisions last February in the Daytona 500. Two top five finishes in the plate races this season means he'll be strong on Saturday night.
John Wiedemann: Greg Biffle has been oh so close to winning the Daytona 500 a couple times, including this year, and has won the Coke Zero 400 back in 2003. Roush Fenway Racing has proven to be the strongest team in the plate races. Add those together with Biffle's plate racing history and you get the 16 at the front of the pack on Saturday night.
JW: Returning to the track where he won the 2012 Daytona 500 should spark the #17 team, but there is a slight difference for Matt Kenseth for this race. Kenseth's next phase of his career started last weekend at Kentucky. After announcing mid-week that he would not drive for Roush-Fenway Racing next year, he started the race as a lame duck driver that is leading in the point standings. How the team deals with a driver that is heading out the door is left to be seen, but if last weekends' race is a sign - it's business as usual. Kenseth methodically drove into the top ten and finished seventh, maintaining an eleven point lead in the standings.
DM: The Daytona 500 winner should be a lock for the favorite role Saturday night, especially after dominating most of the race at Talladega as well. The car should once again be fast. However, while finishing a respectable seventh last week, the team seemed to be missing a bit of that spark that made them nearly unbeatable. A strong run Saturday night at a track they are expected to dominate will prove the off-track news is not a distraction. A Daytona sweep hasn't occurred since Bobby Allison pulled off the feat in 1982, so history could be working against them then again, Kenseth has had no problems setting records this week, coming off his 6th win in the Slinger Nationals.
DM: The Roush Fords were the class of the field in the plate races so far this year and Edwards is in desperate need of a victory. Of the three Roush cars, this team is the one with the most to lose as they are in danger of missing the Chase without a victory in the coming weeks. Bad pit strategy cost them a shot at the win last week at Kentucky and if they can put that behind them, this may be their best shot at breaking the 14 month winless streak.
JW: Keeping things interesting at Roush Fenway Racing, Carl Edwards announced after the Kentucky race that he and crew chief Bob Osborne have been having communication issues that are dividing them. While saying he does not want to get rid of Osborne, Edwards expressed frustration at some of the calls that have been made, most notably a late call to the pits which gave Edwards no time to make the turn onto pit road. Forced to make a fuel stop later in the race at Kentucky dropped Edwards from a victory contending car to a 20th place finish. Daytona and restrictor plate racing continue to be areas where Roush Fenway Racing is strong and nothing would sooth the relationship between Edwards and Osborne more than a win this weekend.
JW: Brad Keselowski is the most recent restrictor-plate victor after winning the Aaron's 499 at Talladega in May. Keselowski is also the most recent victor in the series after winning the Quaker State 400 at the Kentucky Speedway, his third win this season. It still has been an inconsistent season for Keselowski but the rollercoaster ride has smoothed out recently with an average finish of ninth in the last eleven races. With the three wins in his pocket Keselowski looks to be solidly in the Chase either as a top ten driver or wildcard, but he really needs to stay in the top ten to capitalize on those wins and turn them into bonus points when the Chase starts.
DM: Don't look now, but Keselowski, Paul Wolfe, and the #2 team are rapidly becoming the next dominating team in NASCAR. With three wins already, including last week at Kentucky and a plate win at Talladega, Keselowski has proven the Dodges aren't afraid of the Roush Fords and Brad has the bravado to mix it up late when chances need to be taken to break out from the pack.
#88- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
DM: The #88 bunch is another team that has really come together this season and following his seventh top five finish of the year at Kentucky, Earnhardt sits second in the standings poised for a popular title run. His 13 top ten finishes have already surpassed last season's total and we're only halfway. The plate races with the return of pack racing are Junior's bread and butter and he'll be a factor all night.
JW: If the race is at Daytona, you are going to want to pick Earnhardt. That statement always rings true, but even a little more so this weekend. Earnhardt Jr. has hit his stride with crew chief Steve Letarte, and is second in the point standings while one his way to having his best season ever. A second win for the season may be on tap this weekend.
#18- Kyle Busch
DM: Busch has the best driver ranking among active drivers at Daytona and he currently barely holds the first wildcard entry into the Chase. Bad luck has hampered the team this summer and a driving performance like the one he displayed in the Bud Shootout here in February could see him walking away with the trophy and solidifying his place in the Chase.
#24- Jeff Gordon
JW: Daytona would be a great place for Jeff Gordon to get his first win this season. Gordon has two top tens in the last two summer races at Daytona. If he can stay out of trouble, he will be in the front. Gordon needs a win and is running out of time. He is in the top twenty in points and I'm thinking that a win at Daytona and maybe another one at the Brickyard would put him in the Chase, maybe I'm thinking of the Gordon of 2004.
#48- Jimmie Johnson
DM: Johnson and the #48 team have been as hot as the weather this summer, scoring two wins and five top five finishes in the last seven weeks with their worst finish being 11th. They only lasted two laps here in February and their last bad run was at Talladega where an engine failure left them 35th. This team addresses weaknesses better than any other and they'll be out to prove their plate program is better than their results this season.
#51- Kurt Busch
DM: Kurt Busch is my long shot pick this week as the Phoenix Racing team owned by James Finch traditionally has a solid restrictor plate program. Kurt has stopped wrecking cars of late and has put together some solid runs. In my opinion, Kurt Busch is the best plate track racer yet to score a restrictor plate victory and that could change Saturday night at Daytona.
#22- AJ Allmendinger
JW: I'm sticking with the same driver. Keep picking him until he wins. Just like most drivers in the field at Daytona, if he stays out of trouble - he'll have a shot at the win. Allmendinger is increasingly coming under scrutiny this year and rumors are swirling about his future at Penske. While luck may have something to do with his results this season, one top five and three top tens are making those rumors hard to ignore.
Other story lines
DM - The race to the Chase is on and time is running out on some drivers which has set up an incredible battle for the final two wild card slots. Carl Edwards is 11th in points but is currently out without any victories while Kyle Busch holds the first slot with just a single victory. The second wild card spot is currently a three-way tie between Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, and Joey Logano who all have the same amount of points and single victories among them. Meanwhile, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, and Jeff Burton are barely staying in contention in the top 20 points positions where a single victory could vault them into one of the wildcard slots. Among those drivers currently in the Chase, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are the only two without a victory this season.
JW - After going through a season with the Chase wildcard rules and bonus points for wins rules put in place last year, teams really understand the importance of wins. With Brad Keselowski and his three wins on the bubble of the top ten in the standings, everything hinges on whether he stays in the top ten or falls out. If Brad is in the top ten, drivers with one win or no wins have hope. If Brad falls in the standings, that leaves only one wildcard left and many drivers chances of getting that last card evaporate. Throw Tony Stewart, who just dropped four spots to ninth in the standings, and his two wins into the mix and one win may not be enough for a wildcard. There are still nine wins available prior to the Chase and who captures those wins will make the race to the Chase interesting.