Mash The Gas – Daytona Preview

Polesitter Chase Elliott leads the opening lap of the Daytona 500. [Russ Lake Photo]

Polesitter Chase Elliott leads the opening lap of the 2016 Daytona 500. [Russ Lake Photo]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

We have reached the halfway point of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and a key storyline so far this year has been the increased competition with eleven different winners in the first sixteen races. That competition and unpredictability should carry over to Saturday night as the Daytona International Speedway hosts the Coke Zero 400 under the lights.

Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola
Daytona International Speedway
400 miles (160 laps)
Sunday, July 2, 7:45pm ET
NBC, 7pm ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
The Coke Zero 400 is the third of four restrictor plate races on the schedule and as the series returns to the World Center of Speed for the first time since the season opening Daytona 500 and every car in the field has a legitimate shot to win.

Also don’t forget, the last time the drivers raced here produced the closest Daytona 500 finish in history. With the cars bunched tightly together, restrictor plate racing is mainly about being in the right place at the right time in both avoiding incidents and planning a charge to the front. Unlike the other restrictor plate track at Talladega, handling plays a more significant role at Daytona and those who can find the right combination of speed and handling will find themselves out front.

The second half of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season kicks off Saturday night with the Coke Zero 400 from Daytona and here are some drivers to watch….

Denny Hamlin (Dan Margetta)
Incredibly, Denny Hamlin has driven to a stellar 3.2 average finish over his last five Daytona starts and he won the Daytona 500 and the Sprint Unlimited to kick off the year. Despite those impressive stats, Hamlin comes into the July Daytona event with enticing 10-1 odds to win as after the Daytona 500 victory his performance had leveled off prior to battling Tony Stewart for the win last week. Hamlin let one get away last weekend and a return to Daytona, where he has been so good lately, has to stand out as a prime opportunity to return to victory lane. While he may not top everyone’s favorites list this weekend, look for Denny Hamlin to be one of the drivers to beat on Saturday night.

Austin Dillon (John Wiedemann)
With an average finish of 12.5 in six races at Daytona, it seems like Austin Dillon knows how to run up front at the big track. Last year, Dillon ended up flying over the field and into the catch fence at the finish, but it was another race where he was running up front. Can he win this weekend? Sure, it’s Daytona and anyone who can find the handling will have a shot at victory. Dillon has shown he can run up front and wouldn’t it be a great story to see the #3 back in victory lane at Daytona. Dillon could use the win as he is on the edge of making the Chase right now. With only five spots currently available to non-winners, the competition will be fierce. Best to get in to the Chase with a win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (DM)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still the favorite of the Vegas odds makers when it comes to restrictor plate races as they have tabbed him with 9/2 odds despite having finishes of 36th and 40th in the two plate races in 2016. That might be because Earnhardt Jr. announced this week the team will fall back to their 2015 set up when it comes to the plate tracks and that set up produced a 1.75 average finish in the restrictor plate races. Dale Jr. drove to two victories on the plate tracks in 2015 and his worst finish was third. A return to that kind of performance would be a welcome sight for ‘Junior Nation’ as he has yet to win this season and is cliff hanging on the edge of the Chase in 12th place in the point standings. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is tied with Tony Stewart for the most wins at Daytona among the active drivers and he is by far the best restrictor plate racer in the garage. If the #88 team can remained focused Saturday night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could punch his ticket to the Chase in the Coke Zero 400.

Kyle Busch (JW)
The series leader in wins, and Chase bonus points, will be looking for another one this weekend. In fact all Kyle is looking for week in and week out is wins. So you can bet that the #18 team will take any chance available if it gives them the opportunity to find victory lane. Kyle has one win at Daytona and the series best driver rating of 95.4 to go along with the ninth-best average finish of 18.2. Look for Kyle, along with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates to be at the front of the pack. And, look for Kyle to gamble as the finish nears. It may pay off with his fourth victory of the season.

Kurt Busch (DM)
Kurt Busch is another driver with savvy restrictor plate skills and has developed the moniker of being the “best restrictor plate driver to have never won a restrictor plate race.” Kurt Busch has got to be tired of hearing that and Saturday night presents a prime opportunity for Busch to get that first plate win. The car Kurt Busch will drive Saturday night was built new for the 2016 season and finished seventh in the Sprint Unlimited in February. Kurt Busch is listed at 10-1 odds this weekend while he is already in the Chase with his Pocono win, a victory in a restrictor plate race would mean a lot personally as it is the only type of track he has yet to win at. The #41 team and Kurt Busch have been solid all around in the first half of 2016 and they should kick off the second half strong on Saturday night.

Ryan Blaney (JW)
Ryan Blaney has fallen a bit through the standings and now is on the outside looking in to the Chase. Assuming that Tony Stewart makes the Chase, Blaney is sixteen points out of the group of five drivers that will join this seasons winners in the playoffs. Blaney has had good restrictor plate runs and needs another on this weekend. It wouldn’t be a huge disappointment for Blaney to not make the Chase this season, but when the opportunity is right there, you gotta grab it. I think there are more good, consistent runs for the #21 Ford in the second half of the season, runs that could put the rookie into the Chase. The second half starts now and a good run at Daytona would be the best way to kick it off.

Chase Elliott (DM)
If you are looking to cheer for a first time winner on Saturday night, Chase Elliott might just be your guy. Elliott won the pole for both restrictor plate races so far this year and after a rocky Daytona 500, finished fifth at Talladega in May. Elliott also led 27 laps in that Talladega race and he has shown he can run with the big dogs in the first half of 2016. Elliott’s listed at 15-1 odds this weekend and the #24 team should be on their game Saturday night. This group has been fast right out of the box in 2016 and the time to start thinking about setting their goals toward victory lane is now. The rookie has proven he belongs during the first half of the season and the next step is to close the deal with a win. That win could very well come Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

Jamie McMurray (JW)
Not really a long shot, but Jamie McMurray is someone that most fans don’t think about until the checkers wave at Daytona. McMurray has two wins at the track and both wins were highly deserved and somewhat unexpected. Both he and teammate Kyle Larson have been improving and getting more solid finishes lately. It would not be a surprise to see McMurray, or Larson, in victory lane – but I would put my money on the veteran. McMurray is on the bubble spot in the Chase standings and could use a boost to solidify his position. I still think there will be another couple of new winners for this season to join the eleven who have already won. The wildcards will be few and winning is always the best way into the Chase.

Share Button