Mash The Gas: Daytona Coke Zero 400 Preview

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stands in the garage area during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway. [Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images]

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stands in the garage area during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway. [Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season reaches its halfway point as the circuit returns to restrictor plate racing at the Daytona International Speedway Saturday night with the running of the Coke Zero 400.

Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola
Daytona International Speedway
400 miles (160 laps)
Saturday, July 1
7:30 p.m. ET
NBC, 7:30 p.m. ET, NASCAR America Saturday, NBCSN, 5 p.m.
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 40),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 80)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 160)
Restrictor plate racing also brings back unpredictability into the fold as it is wide open as to who could win this race. Case in point, the last restrictor plate race at Talladega saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. capture his first career victory.

Unlike Talladega, Daytona requires handling ability as well as horsepower so set-ups on the car are important as well and Ford teams have won the last five restrictor plate races.

The top Chevy and Toyota teams will have something to say about that as the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona marks the season’s halfway point and here are some drivers to watch…

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Dan Margetta)
All eyes will be on Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week as he begins his final full time swing through the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup schedule and he is a master of restrictor plate racing. His last few victories have come on the restrictor plate tracks and Saturday night represents his best shot to qualify for the playoffs this season and pick off a win. He’s listed at favorable 8-1 odds this week and he has shined bright at Daytona where he has four wins and thirteen top five finishes. Also while he has left the door somewhat open, this may be his final start at Daytona which will give Saturday night some significance personally for him. The #88 team hasn’t been one of the best teams on the circuit so far this year but the restrictor plate format erases their deficits and that combined with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s prowess on the plate tracks makes them a strong candidate to win on Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400.

Brad Keselowski (John Wiedemann)
Looking to make it six in a row for Ford victories in restrictor plate races, Brad Keselowski will be on point this weekend at Daytona. The defending champion of this race, Keselowski has been a big part of Ford’s recent dominance on the plate tracks. Along with teammate, Joey Logano, the Team Penske drivers have won six of the last eleven plate races with three wins each. While Logano still needs a Playoff eligible win, it has been Keselowski that has shined this year so far. With two wins, Keselowski is currently positioned fourth in the Playoff standings, basically locked in. A driver that usually runs at the front of the pack in plate races, look for Keselowski to score some more Stage bonus points as well as being at the front and in the mix when the checkers fly.

Chase Elliott (DM)
Chase Elliott began the year on fire as he came within a few laps of winning the Daytona 500 but after that hot start, he seems to have disappeared the past few weeks. He remains sixth in the point standings and should be looking forward to getting back in the spotlight at Daytona. In three starts at Daytona, Elliott has captured the pole position in two of them. He has raced strong here and has been bitten by bad luck during the race on more than one occasion. Still, both driver and team know they will good this week and after seeing Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, and Ryan Blaney all get their first victories this season, they have to be thinking it’s their turn Saturday night. Chase Elliott is listed at 18-1 odds this week and if he can avoid bad luck and put together a complete race, we could very well see our fourth first time winner of 2017.

Denny Hamlin (JW)
Which Joe Gibbs Racing driver will be the first to find victory lane this season? This week I am nominating Denny Hamlin. Hamlin is an accomplished restrictor plate racer with a Daytona 500 victory under his belt. While the plate races are very much “luck” races, Hamlin seems to find his way to the front when it matters. Like his teammates “surprisingly” without a victory so far in 2017, Hamlin is ninth in the point standings and is fourth in points amongst drivers without a victory. That is a scary place to be. With eleven drivers having won a race so far, Hamlin is 15th in the Playoff standings, just one point behind Jamie McMurray and nine points ahead of Clint Bowyer. This is a winnable race for Hamlin and one that he really needs.

Kurt Busch (DM)
Remember when Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500? Yeah it seems like a long time ago because we haven’t seen much of Busch or the #41 team since then. Busch should be back in the lime light this week though as he is one of the best restrictor plate racers in the garage and while his lone plate track win was the ‘500’ in February, he has the best Driver Rating at Daytona and owns thirteen top five finishes here. Kurt Busch is listed at 15-1 odds this week and he will be looking to sweep the Daytona races with a strong run in the Coke Zero 400. The last time a driver won both Daytona races in the same season was in 2013 and Kurt Busch is a strong contender to accomplish that feat Saturday night.

Kyle Larson (JW)
Fuel mileage. If it wasn’t for lack of fuel, Kyle Larson might have been your 2017 Daytona 500 champion. Larson has been running good everywhere and is the current point leader with two races wins in 2017 as well as ten top 10 and seven top five finishes. Although his two restrictor plate races ended up with finishes outside of the top ten (12th for both), Larson led sixteen laps at Daytona and was right there in the mix in both races. Larson has been a quick learner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and don’t expect it to be too long until he is a top runner at each and every track. I expect to see him at the front this weekend and wouldn’t be surprised to see him score his third win of the season on Saturday night.

Jamie McMurray (DM)
Jamie McMurray’s teammate Kyle Larson has been stealing all the headlines in 2017 as he has won races and leads the point standings at the halfway point. While all that has been going on, Jamie McMurray has been enjoying a strong season as well even though he has yet to find victory lane. McMurray has multiple restrictor plate race victories and he is listed at 25-1 odds heading into Daytona. This team and driver have been running very well each and every week but they tend to get overlooked because of the quiet way they have been going about it. If you are looking for an under the radar pick to win this weekend at Daytona, Jamie McMurray could be your driver. He has two victories at Daytona to go along with three top five finishes and five top ten results. Don’t be surprised if Jamie McMurray steps out of his teammate’s shadow and finds victory lane Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400.

Trevor Bayne (JW)
While it is hard to say anyone is a long shot at Daytona, since his breakout win at the 500 in 2011, we haven’t seen much of Trevor Bayne at the front of the pack. With teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr’s victory at Talladega, another victory this season for Roush Fenway Racing would be icing on the cake. Bayne finished tenth at the Daytona 500 this year and has two other tenth place finishes this season. Earlier in the season, it looked like things were improving for the driver of #6 with finishes of 13th or better in seven out of the first nine races. The last seven races, starting with Talladega where he was eliminated in a wreck, have seen an average finish of 21st. This weekend could be the ticket to a turn around and nothing would be better for Bayne than finding victory lane again at Daytona.

These Guys NEED A Win!
These drivers have won in the past but are yet to find victory lane this season: Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Chris Buescher, Trevor Bayne, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola and David Ragan. Of those 14 drivers, eight have won previously at Daytona (Kenseth, Hamlin, Earnhardt Jr., McMurray, Ky. Busch, Bayne, Almirola, Ragan). Could we see of of those drivers win again and push the number of winners this season to twelve? Remember, only sixteen drivers make the Playoffs. With ten races left, the drama of who is in and who is out is going to get interesting.

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